The Unintended Negative Effects of Diversity and Inclusion Training (And How to Avoid Them)

Diversity and inclusion are buzzwords floating around Silicon Valley and beyond. But when does this training help and when does it hurt?

diversity and inclusion training

Inclusion and diversity are watchwords for almost every company in America. Unless you are a sole proprietor, chances are you’re going to have some diversity in your company, whether by gender, race, religion or other categories. Training employees to be more inclusive has been going on for decades, as workforces have become more diverse. Different approaches have had positive and negative results. So here’s the question: are we any closer to an inclusive workplace environment than when we started? The answer isn’t clear, but it depends on what kind of training you offer and how it’s reinforced.

The Case for Diversity and Inclusion Training

Beyond the morality of creating a diverse and inclusive workplace, there’s a business case for fostering such an environment. Experts agree the benefits to organizations are plentiful: creativity is boosted when more than one voice is heard, often with innovation as the result. Employees feel more comfortable in an accepting and supportive workplace, increasing engagement. Better representation among workers can translate to a better understanding of customers, leading to increased profitability. Companies that promote diversity and inclusion also usually see a boost in their brands.

So here’s the question: are we any closer to an inclusive workplace environment than when we started?

With all the benefits, it’s easy to understand why companies have diversity and inclusion training top of mind. When they’re done right, they can be highly successful. When done wrong, however, they can actually put companies in a worse place than where they started. Navigating what type of D&I training is right for your group may not be as complex as you think. Experts have weighed in on what types of D&I training will net results and which will not.

When Diversity and Inclusion Training Goes Wrong

Unfortunately, while the idea behind diversity and inclusion training is valuable and ethical, when it is implemented incorrectly or without thought, it can often elicit adverse effects. According to Frank Dobbins, a Harvard Sociologist focused on diversity training, there are three primary reasons D&I efforts can go wrong– and hurt a company’s culture. Here are the three common missteps:

  1. When it’s mandatory. Mandatory diversity and inclusion training can net an immediate and negative response. When it’s mandatory, it can seem punitive, with a reaction of “someone did something wrong and now we all have to sit through this.” If training is required in response to a problem you may already be behind the eight-ball where employee opinion is concerned. The majority of people don’t see themselves as biased and immediately become vehemently defensive if they’re accused of being so. Similarly, when it’s clearly being offered as a response to an incident, attendees can become extremely defensive. Some may even cling more strongly to their biases. Research has overwhelmingly shown negative messaging in D&I training not only doesn’t help, but it may also set inclusion efforts back. Social scientists have also found, over a number of years, that people naturally tend to rebel against enforced rules.
  2. When it’s too focused on the law. Another mistake businesses make when implementing D&I programs is focusing on a legal viewpoint as opposed to an empathetic and ethical viewpoint. When employees perceive the training as an attempt to stay compliant and simply check off a box, they will usually be more resistant to the teachings. If a business is not genuine in its reasons for offering the training, it will be harder for employees to genuinely absorb the information.
  3. When it’s offered to (or required for) a limited group. Dobbins’ research suggests that when training is only offered to one group in the office, it’s much less effective. Training only your management team may seem like a good (and cost-efficient) idea, but employees don’t like being left out. Furthermore, discrimination and biases don’t solely occur at a managerial level. To be effective with training, it should be accessible and encouraged for all

Unfortunately, around 75% of corporate diversity training programs fall into one of these three categories. Not only does this mean businesses are wasting copious amounts of money on ineffective programs, but some of these programs are actually causing harm and increasing unhealthy tension between coworkers. But this doesn’t mean D&I programs should be avoided. They just need to be conducted responsibly, appropriately, and genuinely.

When Does Diversity and Inclusion Training Work?

The jury is largely out on D&I training. So much bad training is out there, it’s difficult to find success stories among the noise. But they exist. No one walks into their place of business deciding they’re going to let their racist, sexist, homophobic flag fly all day. And if they did, a pink slip should be the immediate result. But much of our biases are unconscious. Beginning with that premise– that bias may be something we’re unaware of– might be the first step to successful outcomes.

This doesn’t mean D&I programs should be avoided. They just need to be conducted responsibly, appropriately, and genuinely.

Tools like the Harvard Implicit Association Test can help employees start. The free online test measures the strength of associations between concepts and evaluations or stereotypes. The test is completely anonymous and uncovers some of the unconscious biases that we all have. Suggesting it to employees pre-diversity and inclusion training may provide a stepping off point that opens staff to new ideas.

Unconscious Bias Diversity and Inclusion Training

Effective diversity and inclusion training can begin with the premise that we all have unconscious biases: period, full stop. It’s built into our DNA to fear the unknown: it’s helped us survive for millennia. It’s hard-wired for us to gravitate toward “like-minded” people. When we meet someone we perceive has a similar history and values, we assume because they are like us, they will like us, making for a more comfortable and potentially successful relationship. Research suggests bias may not be learned behavior; it’s been with us always and it has its usefulness. It keeps us from walking down that dark alley at night alone. It also has its downsides.

In today’s global workscape, unconscious bias can keep people from doing their best and from getting the best they can from their work. It can also lead to harmful practices, such as “hiring for culture fit,” which often boils down to selecting the candidate that is most similar to the hiring manager. Promote the programming as something that will help them develop stronger relationships with cohorts, rather than a class that’s rooting out bad apples. Remind staff we all have biases: some are working to our benefit and others are holding us back. And make it voluntary so employees can come with an open mind, rather than a chip on their shoulder.

You may think voluntary classes may not see attendees – but they will. And if they’re impactful and engaging, buzz will spread. Remind those who have completed the course to spread the word if they learned something about themselves at the session. And keep the door open to more who want to know what all the fuss is about.

Diversity and Inclusion Training is Only One Piece of the Pie

When training is the only aspect of your D&I initiatives, not only will employees consider it a chore, they’ll know it’s not a genuine effort to grow. Behaviors and messaging from the top down and the bottom up must keep welcoming in mind. The goal of D&I training is a more inclusive workplace. Without consistent reinforcement, that can’t happen.

How do Employees Benefit from Diversity and Inclusion Training?

At its best, diversity and inclusion training builds comfort with a wider range of perspectives and opinions. It helps employees shape more rewarding relationships with peers, colleagues, and customers. Allowing yourself to be challenged and inspired by the ideas and perspectives of others makes for a more impactful day. We live in a global society, why not benefit as much as you can from all it has to offer?

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