Starbucks recently closed over 8,000 of its American stores to hold a four-hour training session on unconscious biases. The goal was noble, but the efficacy of this exercise remains to be seen. As a way to prompt discussion Starbucks succeeded, but perhaps not as planned. As soon as this anti-bias training was announced, many media organizations and pundits started talking about diversity training. Specifically, they wondered if diversity training worked at all. So, the question is: Does diversity and inclusion training really work?
As with other areas of corporate learning, there are pros and cons to any diversity initiative. When done properly (i.e., as an ongoing program that focuses on behaviors and awareness), diversity training does work. Let’s look at some common issues and relevant solutions.
Issue: Some believe that diversity training stifles free speech.
Solution: Focus your program on quantifiable and behavioral outcomes.
The goal of successful diversity and anti-bias training programs is not to change minds, but to alter behaviors. Your employees can believe whatever they want; but they must behave in accordance with company policy. Just like with social media usage, your employees can do whatever they like when off the clock. However, employees should understand that they can be held accountable for any actions they undertake or views they espouse that contradict company policy.. Consider the following analogy: Robert loves professional wrestling. He attends matches, wears gear, and discusses wrestling on several online message boards and fan sites. However, Robert works as a financial advisor for a company with a very formal office atmosphere. He does not wear his WrestleMania XXVIII tee shirt to meet with his clients, and he does not use his WWF Championship Belt coasters on his desk. Robert understands that he goes to work to help his clients make sound financial decisions, not to debate the likelihood of a professional wrestler running for office. Furthermore, he understands that his hobby is seen by many as childish at best, hyper-violent at worst and he’d rather that his clients’ opinion of him (and his company) be shaped by his performance rather than his interests.
Issue: These training initiatives cause a backlash that is often counterproductive.
Solution: Be clear about the rationale behind implementing this training program.
This is closely related to the above point. Some people will not appreciate anti-bias training but by clearly explaining the rationale behind the initiative, you can firmly state company policy and the intent behind the implementation of an anti-bias training. It may be linked to damage control or it may be related to the desire to create a deeper talent pool. Regardless of the reasons, clarity is key. For instance, Wynonna implemented an anti-bias training program for her private security firm. In the memo announcing the program and on the first day of the training itself, she explained her rationale and goals. Instead of letting her staff wonder if one of them had done something wrong, Wynonna explained that she was concerned about public perception of security personnel after a video of an over-zealous security guard (from a rival company) went viral. Her staff understood that she was being proactive about protecting the image of both her company and her staff. Waverly, owner of a tech startup, decided to revise and retrain the anti-discrimination policies when a transgender employee told the human resources department that he’d been the target of a slur. Waverly circumvented rumors that the employee’s complaint had sparked the need for extra training by reminding all employees that the company’s vision statement included a commitment to diversity and inclusivity.
Issue: The success of each diversity training program rests on the personalities of the learners.
Solution: Make your diversity training program accessible to all employees.
By having your diversity training available as eLearning or instructor-led training, you can be sure to reach employees in the manner that best suits their learning styles. Vary the presentation of your training materials (and avoid holding a two-hour motivational lecture and calling it a day). You should not only customize the format of your training program according to modality. You should also look to your individual employees for inspiration. Your Millennial employees are statistically likelier to know LGBTQ+ individuals and thus might offer insights to that effect during group discussions. Baby Boomers, on the other hand, might be more knowledgeable about the American civil rights movement.
Above all, your company should never treat diversity training as just another requirement. If you genuinely want your workers to value diversity, you should strive for a more diverse workforce and provide actions that support the company line. You wouldn’t call yourself a fitness buff if you never exercised; likewise, companies that claim to be serious about diversity should have a diverse staff. When employees see that management embodies your corporate values, then they too will model their actions on those values.