I’ve never understood those deals where they close every store of a franchise (i.e. Starbucks) for a full day for some type of “diversity training” after a mess of a public event. (Thank you, social media and instant streaming from phones, for exposing the truth!) It just feels like a complicated PR stunt cooked up by overpaid consultants.
I’ve been to a few diversity training sessions in my day. I am a white male that grew up pretty liberal, although now I’m probably “centrist,” whatever that means. I’ve done stupid shit with women but I broadly respect women, and I definitely respect their role in holding together the societal fabric. Women are way more important in that vein than businesses are.
As for minorities? They do seemingly most of the actual work in America these days, and the service industry powers us through “Oh God, I just got brutalized by my boss all day, can I outsource making dinner?” moments. Most of the back-end of the service industry, best I can tell, is minority or immigrant. Much respect on all those fronts.
I say all this to indicate that I don’t generally need diversity training, because I respect all the walks and people that biz tends to scoff at. But I’ve been to them, and what is it, usually? Some lady from HR clicking through slides and asking “So, does anyone need a 3-minute bio break?” Meanwhile, the people with actual decision-making authority in that business are usually checked out, checking email, whatever.
Most of those guys (still typically men, which is part of why we even need diversity training) do not see their job as to sit in these sessions. They see their job as revenue growth, sales discussions, “hyper-scaling,” whatever. They view these sessions as nuisances. That is the mentality and the psychology of a lot of these guys, and that’s typically why these things don’t accomplish much.
Oh, you don’t believe me? Cool. We have some research now tho.
Does diversity training work?
Here’s the research we are going to use. Sample size of 10,000, which isn’t bad. They walked different people through diversity training sessions. You can see the whole methodology at that link. Let me give you the good news and the bad news.
The bias-focused trainings had a positive effect on the attitudes of one important group: employees who we believe were the least supportive of women prior to training. We found that after completing training, these employees were more likely to acknowledge discrimination against women, express support for policies designed to help women, and acknowledge their own racial and gender biases, compared to similar employees in the control group. For employees who were already supportive of women, we found no evidence that the training produced a backlash.
We found very little evidence that diversity training affected the behavior of men or white employees overall—the two groups who typically hold the most power in organizations and are often the primary targets of these interventions.
Who tends to be decision-makers? Uh, white men. As a result, I’d say this research points to “Diversity training probably does not work.”
Why is this?
Again, work is broadly a quest for relevance and to not be perceived as incompetent. At that intersection, there is a lot of virtue-signaling and value-signaling about how important and great you are. On top of that, at a certain level of a for-profit organization, your entire job is tied to growth or money. You can make more for your family by focusing on those things. Ultimately I think most people make decisions based on their immediate family, i.e. spouse, aging parents, kids, etc. So if your path to that is focusing on “hyper-growth,” that’s what you will ultimately do. It’s very hard to stay as an individual contributor in a business without reaching a level where you need to talk about numbers and spreadsheets all day.
Plus: a lot of guys at those levels want to be surrounded by people like them, who live in similar neighborhoods to them, who have wives that look similar to them, who have kids in school with theirs, etc. That is comforting to those guys at the top of businesses. They don’t want “diversity” because diversity is often scary — and it means having to embrace differing perspectives, which is not exactly how businesses want to behave.
How do we get better about it?
Very hard, but:
- Tie it more directly to financials. Executives will care more.
- Think about “inclusion” more broadly.
- Think about “diversity” more broadly, i.e. “cognitive diversity.”
- Try to foster a place where differing ideas are OK.
- Care about diverse initiatives as a moral imperative.
I think those would be your biggest initial chunks. There are micro-execution elements, sure, but a lot of those tend to be easily dismissed as “HR bullet points,” and true “decision-makers” don’t care about those. So start at the 35,00-foot level, because I think a lot of companies aren’t even clear right there what’s supposed to happen.
Also: if you hire consultants to tell you why this matters, you’re already a mess. You should internally know why it’s important, and only engage consultants on the how of making execs care and reporting results.