Diversity Training in a Nutshell: Why It Fails and How to Make It Work

In April, two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks after the store manager called the police. The men asked for a bathroom code but were denied because they were sitting in the coffee shop, had not ordered anything, and refused to leave. They said they were waiting for a friend, who arrived after they had been taken away by the police.

The reaction to the incident was immediate: people started to protest, targeting the chain of coffee shops and accusing its management of racism. Why? One witness said she had been sitting in the coffee shop for an hour without placing an order. Also, the manager refused to give the men a bathroom code (for the same reason—they had not bought anything), but then another customer got the code without making a purchase. Starbucks, reacting to a national debate, closed 8,000 of its US coffee stores on Tuesday, 29 of May, to conduct racial bias training—a type of diversity training.  

Why companies even do diversity training?

Diversity training is designed to teach people how to overcome their biases about other people and why it’s necessary to do so. In diversity training, people learn to recognize and prevent discrimination in the workplace and in communications with clients.

Nowadays, relationships between employees within a company, and between companies and their customers, are quick and extremely reactive. Social media is a volatile place for talking about cases of discriminationyou can watch your “strong” brand positioning disappear in a matter of seconds. Situations like the one mentioned above are having a major negative impact on the various brands’ reputations.

Diversity training is extremely important for all companies, and especially for large corporations and retail chains like Starbucks. As Jacinta Gauda, the head of Gaude Group in New York, said, “The more your brand is trying to connect emotionally to people, the more hurt people feel when these kinds of things happen. They are breaking a promise. That’s what makes it hurt deeper.” Although it’s true that if you aren’t polite to your customers or your employees, sooner or later they’ll leave you (and tell the world about it). But there are more reasons to implement diversity training.

Removing biases is one of the solutions for dealing with a talent shortage. If you have a diverse corporate culture, you’re hiring people who have the skills needed for a position and who are usually under-represented in the industry (such as women in STEM fields, for instance). That’s definitely a bigger talent pool. Non-discrimination policies ensure that people have equal possibilities to work, obtain services, and to make purchases regardless of their gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, cultural heritage or religion. These policies are also about ensuring the same friendly and professional environment for people with different levels of education, work experience, and personality traits.

Diverse teams in a company are groups of people with different backgrounds: their ideas can bring innovation and take your business to a higher level. Gender and ethnic diversity are also connected to creativity and financial profits, as the McKinsey report confirms. Along with new ideas, the understanding of the worldwide multicultural marketplace comes: diversity now is recognized as one of the main business drivers. So why diversity training fails so often?

Three typical mistakes in diversity training

When creating a diversity training program we usually work with problems that occur from two different sources: the specifics of human learning and sociocultural backgrounds. Biases arise due to environmental factors and they are supported by how our brain works. We tend to have difficulty remembering things that we don’t consider valuable. So if someone doesn’t believe that racist jokes are harming the workplace environment, they will probably remember very little from a racial bias training session. In fact, they can be even more annoyed. Diversity training is usually perceived with pessimism, as there is no easy way to remove the impact of people’s past experiences. But we can tell which actions would make a situation even more complicated.  

  1. Your training is mandatory, and it’s based on negative reinforcement. Often, diversity programs are implemented on the basis of “if you don’t change your actions you’ll lose your job.” That’s true: people do get fired for discrimination and harassment. But positioning diversity training that way doesn’t work. Negative reinforcement only deepens bias, partly because the biased majority then acts more aggressively towards the minorities, blaming them for their struggles and, in general, refuses to engage in the training.
  2. Your training is a one-time passive training. One “racism-is-bad-and-this-is-why” lecture is not a successful weapon to overcome the stereotypes that had been growing for years. People will change their biases only if they’re constantly receiving evidence confirming that their perceptions are wrong and see how their stereotypes affect other people.
  3. Your company isn’t diverse and you don’t run any diversity initiatives. It will probably be much more complicated to implement diversity training if your company isn’t diverse itself, such as if there are no women/people of color/etc. in your senior management. Your employees will listen to information about how cultural diversity helps businesses, but they won’t see any signs of cultural diversity in their working environment. No real-life example—no practical training results.

How to start building the cultural diversity

members of a workplace involved in a diversity training session

As we’ve already said, training to overcome bias and prejudice doesn’t make sense if you don’t support diversity and inclusivity through the hiring practices in your company.

Linda Strokes, President and CEO of PRISM International, lists three steps for organizations to take in order to develop their own cultural translatorsin other words, service providers who can help to retain diverse customer markets by understanding the specifics of the market’s culture and adjusting the business’s services to it. Learning and development professionals, diversity officers, and team leads should follow these steps to begin interacting effectively with diverse cultures.

  • Access the business’s reality and understand how your company can improve services to different locations with different cultures, and why changes may be needed.
  • Acknowledge the will to bring high-quality services to every single customer of yours, with no regards to cultural, racial, gender or other differences.
  • Acquire new methods, skills, and techniques to make adaptation to a huge cross-cultural and highly reactive marketplace smoother.

Diversity training is one such technique. To learn how to overcome biases about people of different cultures, races, genders, etc. employees should follow these two steps to make it work.

First, acknowledge the employees’ biases and their sources (for instance, “I want to get these people out of my coffee shop because they look dangerous. They don’t behave dangerously, I just think they should leave”such “I think” is a racial bias towards black men. This must transform into, “I think these men are dangerous because they are black. I suggest that because I heard that black people are criminals. That’s not true. I can’t see any objective dangerous signs, so I won’t treat them differently.”)

Second, acknowledge their privileges (“I’m a white man. If I call the police to arrest these black people, the police will most likely believe me, because I’m white”.).

As one of the main tools for implementing a diverse culture in the workplace, diversity training is aimed at developing objectivity. That is easier to say than to do. However, there is a study showing effective methods of diversity training: it is skill- and awareness-based. Below are three pieces of advice you can use to make your diversity training work.

Three recommendations for your diversity training

  1. Highlight personal value, not the fear of a lawsuit. One of the most common struggles in implementing diversity policies is the absence of the “what’s in it for me” factor (WIIFM). Explain how diversity policies positively influence performance and business. Let employees connect this information to their personal performance, and recognize the business case: people with different backgrounds can make the workplace less stressful and more interesting, as they will bring new ideas and approaches to improving the workflows and business in general. If employees are more empathetic, understanding, and open-minded, communications within the team will be much better, and positively influence the team members’ productivity.
  2. Provide continuous awareness training, not short lectures. Create a culture supporting awareness so people learn new things about their own personal and cultural backgrounds and values,  and about the backgrounds of minority groups, how they’re different, and why they are different. Include real examples of biases and how they affect minorities in everyday life in a continuous learning program. Make sure to provide managers with tools for constantly mentoring, interviewing, and motivating employees. You can use a mobile learning platform as a framework for delivering regular diversity training.
  3. Ensure employees use it, not lose it. Practice is what makes training work! So focus on understanding and implementing relevant new information. It’s one thing to know that sexism exists, but it is very different to challenge every “blonde” joke in a team. Examples of discrimination could be presented as case studies on a regular basis; this would serve as a practical part of the learning session. Also, learners can practice interpreting a complicated situation containing cultural or gender differences, create presentations, and do some role-playing exercises.

A key training ingredient for cultural diversity: Rational Thought

It’s amusing how quickly and how precisely our brain projects our beliefs and experiences onto the situations around us. No wonder such a great amount of cognitive distortions exist! These are irrational thinking patterns built on the fundamentals of our cultural background, current environment, and emotional state. Stereotypes exist due to those patterns. For instance, some people experience the “just world” fallacy, which is one of the reasons for blaming victims instead of perpetrators. In this case, the person assigning blame supposes that everything in the world is just and fair, and if something happens to another person they probably deserved it—which is not true. We tend to label and catastrophize, find ways to “prove” our biased opinions, and unconditionally believe in higher authorities who agree with us. Relying on cognitive distortion basically means relying on what we unilaterally believe in.

However, it is not helpful to focus your diversity training on fighting these beliefs. Instead, show people that reality is much more complicated, interesting, and full of opportunities. They should see—even for a moment—the bigger picture behind these beliefs; see if they are critical and sensible about the world around them. Build your diversity training based on critical thinking skills, and teach your employees to reflect on everything they hear or see, asking and searching for valid evidence and avoiding conjectures and judgements.

What’s most interesting is that critical thinking techniques actually improve one’s life. When people learn critical thinking skills and learn to identify and challenge assumptions, they stop blindly following emotions or ideas that don’t have a basis in facts and start perceiving their environment more clearly. “Is there any objective reason other than my past background or experiences to not let these people use the bathroom?” In such real-life situations, the previous training your employees have successfully completed will immediately trigger the right response.  

It may not seem like an obvious connection but learning and development in cultural diversity boosts companies’ financial results and increases their customers’ loyaltyandnot just because you’re no longer offending people. Diversity is about putting yourself in another person’s shoes. It teaches us to better understand other people, their motivations, pains, and needs. Diversity will bring you closer to your customers.

Build your training program carefully, so your employees will clearly understand and value the impact of diversity in their work, and beyond, in everyday life.

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