Last June, Training Industry’s Certified Professional in Training Management™ (CPTM) program held a virtual roundtable for its alumni to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within organizations. It’s a conversation that is always relevant but was top of mind then due to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

After the black squares on Instagram and the protests across the country, talk of DEI started to die down a bit — but, hopefully, the steps organizations and individuals were taking toward change did not. After all, the DEI industry has a reputation of “too much talk and not enough action.”

Of course, DEI in most workplaces isn’t a life-or-death issue like it can be for some police officers and the people they come into contact with. But it is, for many people, an issue of psychological safety — of feeling that they can bring their full selves to work and not be demeaned or overlooked because of their gender, their disability or the color of their skin.

In the CPTM roundtable, many participants made the point that training isn’t always the answer, but it does play a part. Some expressed frustration at their organization’s lack of or inadequate response to racial injustice both within and outside the company. There was a sense of “We’ve been doing training, and it hasn’t been enough — so, what now?”

This series of articles will explore the “what now” — how organizations currently approach racial equity and inclusion and how training managers can lead the way toward a more just future of work. This first article will focus on current approaches and why they have failed.

The Science of Diversity

One common approach to DEI is unconscious bias training. However, much of this type of training is notoriously ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. In fact, as Pamela Newkirk writes in her book “Diversity, Inc.,” “There’s a growing body of scholarship that suggests that much of the training mandated by thousands of companies actually does more harm than good.”

“Diversity programs that try to get rid of biases are doomed to fail, because they do not rely on science,” says Dr. Mona Weissmark, clinical and social psychologist and author of the new book “The Science of Diversity,” published this summer by Oxford University Press. “The control-and-command-type diversity training programs and interventions ignore everything scientists know about our biological preferences for people who are like us, our need to belong and maintain our identities.”

Dr. Jarik Conrad, senior director of human insights and human capital management (HCM) evangelization at Ultimate Software, agrees that “the main problem with current approaches to addressing equity at work is that typical diversity initiatives fail to incorporate the best available science, and, when they do, it is generally from a very narrow set of disciplines.”

Even worse than ineffective unconscious bias training is training that actually worsens discriminatory behavior. Weissmark points to research suggesting that “commanding people to change their beliefs or behaviors can trigger oppositional behavior. Most people don’t like being told what to think or how to behave,” she wrote for Psychology Today.

The “Cohesion Gap”

Another problem occurs when organizations have great DEI statements or policies but little follow-through. “We see what I call the ‘cohesion gap,’” says Conrad. “An organization’s policies and practices may look good on paper, but they may not match up with the lived experiences of employees. For example, a company may have an employee resource group for Black employees, but those employees may feel they don’t have adequate avenues to leadership positions.”

In these organizations, DEI training might be more of a “box to check” than an actual instigator of behavior change. “Once it’s done, people move on,” says Angela Connor, founder and chief executive officer of Change Agent Communications. “There’s a difference between training sessions and actual initiatives. Is it initiatives that are failing, or one-off classes and courses not yielding real change because they aren’t tied to anything bigger?” As Rosenberg points out, “working to address bias, inequity and incivility, and develop skills for respectful engagement, should not be a one-off training.”

Is Training Even the Answer?

At the CPTM roundtable, host Dr. Kristal Walker, CPTM, principal consultant at 3C’s Training Group, said that DEI and unconscious bias training “are not the fix right now.” Sometimes, the problem is more systemic and requires addressing deeply entrenched cultural values and processes.

“Training does not cure a culture infection,” said Deadra Welcome, CPTM, founder and chief executive officer of Concerning Learning, LLC, and a former training program manager for the federal government. In some cases, learning and development (L&D) managers can lead by example and make recommendations, but training programs on their own just won’t cut it.

In fact, the consensus at the roundtable seemed to be that L&D managers had a responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. “Silence can sometimes mean consent,” Walker said. “We all have a responsibility to use our platforms in some way.”

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