Have We Been Wrongfully Vilifying DEI Training?

There has been extensive research conducted on the effectiveness of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training. The results of a 2019 research study on diversity training were explored in a Harvard Business Review article. This research indicated that diversity trainings a) encouraged employees to recognize their racial and gender biases and b) led to the support of employment policies aimed at helping women. Based on the research, there was little evidence to support the claim that diversity training impacts the behavior of men or white employees. A 2016 article explored why most diversity programs fail. The authors examined different interventions that have been used to increase diversity. Mandatory diversity training is one of the more popular interventions that is frequently utilized to increase racial and ethnic diversity. The research indicated that mandatory diversity trainings did not lead to an increase in women and employees from underrepresented racial groups. There is a wealth of evidence to support the notion that DEI trainings are a waste of time, money and resources because they don’t produce meaningful long-term behavior change. The idea that DEI trainings lack utility is predicated on the belief that the sole purpose of these types of trainings is behavior change; and more specifically, behavior change of white people. This article interrogates whether we’ve been thinking about DEI training in the wrong way and why there may be positive outcomes that haven’t been considered.

When we think about DEI training, we often conceptualize it through a few very specific lenses. Will this training make people less racist, misogynist, ableist, heteronormative, fatphobic, etc.? Is this type of training improving the behavior of white leaders? After this training, will people care more about marginalized groups? The way we develop and design DEI training is often through a white-centered lens. Whiteness dominates how we think and operate within society. When DEI trainings are being constructed, there is a white audience in mind. These invisible white spectators are described by writer Toni Morrison as the white gaze. An exorbitant amount of research published on DEI training centers on the idea that the purpose of these trainings should be to change the behavior of white people. If we continue to prioritize those in power, workplace equity will continue to evade us. What purpose do these types of trainings serve for employees from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds? There is a lack of empirical evidence that unpacks this question in detail.

One of the reasons why DEI trainings fail is because they are often made mandatory. When employees are forced to attend these types of trainings, research suggests that backlash and resistance can occur. When you peel back the layers of this prominent finding, many of these conclusions are drawn because of evidence that DEI training causes backlash and resistance among white employees. The argument against voluntary DEI training is that it is likely to attract those that need the training the least. Because DEI training often fails to increase racial and ethnic diversity, it is categorized as an ineffective intervention. But is this a fair conclusion? More research must explore how DEI trainings make marginalized employees feel. In a LinkedIn poll exploring perceptions of mandatory DEI training, out of more than 800 respondents, 83% indicated that DEI training should be mandatory. When studies about DEI training efficacy are conducted, they rarely disaggregate the data to evaluate perceptions based on marginalized identity. Workplaces that invest in these types of trainings may be signifying to marginalized employees that DEI is a priority. It is imperative to examine the impacts of DEI training through a more nuanced and expansive lens.

To create a world and a workplace where justice and liberation are a reality, we must continue to reimagine the world as we know it today. The popularly held belief that DEI training is a waste of time, money, effort and resources may be misguided. Perhaps we need to shift our focus and reorient our objectives. Investing in DEI education signals that DEI is an important value. The alternative is not having any sort of DEI training. If there is a possibility that this intervention makes marginalized and historically excluded employees feel a greater sense of belonging, inclusion, and equity, why do we continue to disparage and denigrate it? Eradicating DEI training may not be the best solution; we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you’re considering doing away with DEI training, dive deeper into your workplace’s specific needs to understand how this intervention can help resolve your particular issues. It’s important to take a multi-pronged approach. DEI training should never be a check-box exercise or the only thing that a company is doing to foster equity. There must be a continued and ongoing conversation to expand awareness and equip employees with the tools needed to navigate and reduce workplace harm.

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