It’s 2004, and investment bank Morgan Stanley has just settled a $54 million bias lawsuit. The story broke when over 300 women went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission board with complaints surrounding harassment, sexism and discrimination within the workplace. On the steps of the courthouse, EEOC lawyer Elizabeth Grossman stated, ”discrimination is very much a problem…I expect that we will hear more from women on Wall Street and from racial minorities on Wall Street.” 

Since then, many businesses and firms have been called out for discrimination within the workplace. Be it sexism, racism, ageism – to name but a few. Many HR divisions have set up Diversity Programs that were designed to improve the workplace experience for certain groups who have been subject to discrimination. 

But what are the main reasons these diversity incentives fail?

People don’t want to take part. We see this a lot. A company reaches out and asks for support in D&I training though the senior team/ stakeholders don’t want to take part unless they know the objective, agenda, conversations that will take place and the outcome. Unfortunately, challenging one’s bias is not about box-ticking. It takes time and energy like all training. 

The material is outdated. Businesses that decide on a more digital approach tend to rely on content involving 1980’s “father of diversity” R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. Jump forward a few year and these tapes are still being shown – the message is still the same the general mindset has not shifted, because the content is not relevant, relatable or digestible. It has been proven that certain negative terminologies consultants use in diversity programmes can also cause more harm than good.

“By headlining the legal case for diversity and trotting out stories of huge settlements, they issue an implied threat: “Discriminate, and the company will pay the price.” 

The training is seen as a punishment. If a handful of complaints are made by a department or team member, the whole team are bought into training. This can upset employees who don’t feel like they need to be there and so shut down and get defensive. This is apparent for Managers also. If they feel that extra training is required because of discrimination within their department, the consensus is to resist the message as they see it as a reflection of their management.

Cheating the system. According to Harvard Business Review, 40% of companies now try to fight bias with mandatory hiring tests assessing the skills of candidates for frontline jobs. Sounds positive right? Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. It has also been documented by HBR that many of these tests are bias, with certain tests being given to minority candidates and not white candidates. In one particular study, it was found that “the team paid little attention when white men blew the math test but close attention when women and blacks did. Because decision-makers (deliberately or not) cherry-picked results, the testing amplified bias rather than quashed it.”

Suggested actions to take

Try not to take it personally. D&I training is something that is designed to tackle the system, it’s not a personal attack on you or your character. The training is designed to start a conversation. In your next training session, try and listen to the facts and switch off the internal monologue that you are being called out for bad behaviour.

Using positive and negative terminologies. It’s important to remember the terms used will determine the outcome of a D&I workshop. Terms such as “sued,” “mandatory,” “trouble” ignite negativity, which then causes employees walls to go up and the mindset becomes fixed – meaning the information won’t be absorbed.

Don’t view it as a box-ticking exercise. At the end of the day, people are people and everyone deserves respect. Be aware of your own privilege and ask, “if it was me, how would I feel?” the response may shock you.

How to take action? Be aware of your actions and mindset when in any type of D&I training. Listen, learn and make changes. Need some practice? Sign up for the next members’ workshop!

Resources to share in your teams & discuss further:

Articles 💻
Why Diversity Programs Fail – Harvard Business Review
Why Workplace Diversity Is So Important, And Why It’s So Hard To Achieve – Forbes
50 Ways to Fight Bias at your organization – Lean In

 Videos 📹
How to get serious about diversity and inclusion in the workplace | Janet Stovall | TED
The Surprising Solution to Workplace Diversity | Arwa Mahdawi | TEDxHamburg
Let’s stop talking about diversity and start working towards equity | Paloma Medina | TEDxPortland

Podcasts & Books 📚
reWorked – The Diversity and Inclusion Podcast
So You Want to Talk About Race – by Ijeoma Oluo
We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation – by Matthew Riemer
Between the World and Me Hardcover – by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation – by Leo R. Chavez

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