Over the past few weeks, diversity training has come under attack. And not just by a handful of reluctant corporate employees — by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S., President Trump banned federal diversity training. In the UK, as many as 40 Conservative MPs have vowed not to take voluntary unconscious bias training.
We agree that there should be some reservation towards unconscious bias training. In fact, we’ve written about the flaws of unconscious bias training before. Our stance on unconscious bias training is that it’s ineffective — on its own. Putting people through a one-off session meant to serve as their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) education is going to fail. If anything, it only serves as a starting point to bring everyone up to the same level of awareness before moving on.
But this complete ban is an alarming move from President Trump, who has a history of dismissing systemic racism and refusing to fully condemn white supremacist groups.
For British MPs, their outright refusal to take part speaks volumes on their commitment to leading inclusively.
That being said, we wanted to delve deeper. Why have they rejected this training? And what are the real issues with diversity training?
As many DEI leaders know, we don’t all start our journey at the same place. One person might be well-versed in concepts like systemic racism and privilege. Another might not believe that there is a problem at all, often because their definition of racism says that it only comes in the form of overt discrimination.
If you’re in the second camp, it can be uncomfortable and unwelcome to be told that you are not actually exempt from biased thoughts. It blurs the line between racist and not racist. It threatens people’s positive sense of identity and makes them feel attacked, as shown in The Times where an MP described unconscious bias training as being told that “you’re an awful human being”. The Trump administration referred to diversity training as “blame-focused”. This knee-jerk reaction to write off the training as the problem feels easier than accepting the uncomfortable truth that we could have thoughts that disadvantage someone else.
It’s this non-negotiable feeling that educator Beverley Daniel-Tatum warns her students of when they start their antiracism work, and wills them through to get to the part where they feel liberated. And that’s part of unconscious bias training’s downfall — it often points out the problem without offering a solution. It focuses and ends on a negative, rather than framing inclusion as a learned skill and empowering participants to help change the status quo.
There’s also the protest that diversity training, and talking about race more broadly, can end up treating people as groups. When you hear phrases like “people of color want… ” and “white people don’t understand…”, it sounds divisive. Like the very stereotyping diversity training is meant to counteract.
That’s why diversity training also needs to create space for unique perspectives and group dialogue. This disrupts the problem of talking about racial groups in general terms by turning it into a shared learning experience, one where learners can interact with best practice in their own way.
While it was voluntary for MPs in the UK, another issue is when unconscious bias training is made mandatory, as it was said to have been for some government staff in the U.S. This exacerbates the problem by adding fuel to the fire for people who are reluctant to learn in the first place.
A Hive Learning client with two inclusion programs — one voluntary and one mandatory — reported a 50%+ higher completion rate for the voluntary program because it was framed as an essential leadership skill. The client made the value proposition clear to users — understanding how to be more inclusive wasn’t only the right thing to do, but it would make them better leaders, get them better outcomes, and help them get more from every member of their team.
That being said, while a level of choice is involved for some corporate employees, there are dangerous consequences when MPs and politicians aren’t aware of diversity-related issues. For example, Islamophobic incidents increased by 375% the week after then Foreign Minister Boris Johnson wrote an article comparing Muslim women wearing niqabs to letterboxes.
Another complaint often thrown at any attempt to discuss diversity is that it is in itself a divisive action. But talking about the issue doesn’t create it, just as not acknowledging something doesn’t make it go away. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant; you might not like what you find at first, but you have to start somewhere.
Let’s be honest, no one enjoys learning that they’ve unknowingly harbored thoughts that challenge their morality. Or that they benefit from the same structure that disadvantages someone else. For many everyday folk, saying that a person benefits from or contributes to racism could just as easily sound like saying “that person is racist”.
Acknowledging their unconscious bias is uncomfortable, but it’s a hard truth to reckon with and best managed by equipping ourselves with actions and knowledge and choosing to do something about it. As antiracist scholar and writer Ibram X. Kendi says:
The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities… What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what — not who — we are.
And contrary to what some might think, diversity and inclusion work benefits everyone. It allows us all to be respected for who we are, whatever our socioeconomic background, cognitive ability, gender, race or sexual orientation. In fact, Deloitte found that organizations with an inclusive culture are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets and three times as likely to be high-performing.
Diversity pays, too — McKinsey has reported that gender and racial equality could add $4.3 trillion and $1 trillion to the U.S. economy, respectively. If you wanted to look at it in terms of a single business, a three-year study found that companies that looked at leadership and inclusion as a hallmark of their talent strategy saw 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee over that period.
We know that DEI training needs a makeover to reach everyone where they are. Unpacking and squaring up to systemic biases is hard. That’s why the most impactful diversity and inclusion work focuses on small, everyday behaviors that anyone in an organization can do.
It’s vital that our politicians commit to this work. How fairly can an MP serve all their constituents if they’re not modeling simple inclusive behaviors like hearing everyone’s voice in a meeting or checking their own bias before giving a close teammate a plum assignment? How can whole boroughs, states and countries be heard without representatives who aren’t afraid to confront their biases and commit to hard, essential work that dismantles issues like racism, bit by bit?
We agree that diversity training doesn’t work when:
- It doesn’t explain why it’s needed or important (aside from vaguely suggesting it’s the right thing to do)
- It’s treated as a one-off necessity without following up with practical actions
- Participants are forced to do it
- It blames or generalizes any group, essentially falling into the trap it’s meant to solve
- There’s no room to explore nuanced experiences and discuss with your peers
But bad diversity training shouldn’t be what holds us back. Our leaders need to invest their energy in DEI work because:
- There are dangerous consequences when they don’t
- It’s how we dismantle damaging issues like racism, because we need to talk about problems to change them
- We’re missing huge financial upside in our businesses and economy
There will be discomfort in DEI work from the start. It’s because of this natural discomfort that it’s crucial to motivate participants to choose to do the work. Do this by clearly communicating the why and commit to an approach that has tangible actions and feels inclusive of everyone.
In fact, we think it’s so important that if you work for a political party and you’d like a free pilot of our program, Inclusion Works, you know where we are — get in touch with us here.
💡 You might also like our latest pulse report, Harnessing the power of Black Lives Matter to create lasting change. We spoke to over 30 DEI leaders on what actions they’re taking in their business in response to the recent events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.
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