We Don’t Need No Stinking Diversity Training

It needs to be said: diversity training is futile.

Adrift from the workday world, diversity training creates
manufactured situations where people lie through their teeth, stay aggressively
uninvolved, or—sensing a safe zone—share their story or biases and create a
personal vulnerability that’s later left unsupported when they return to
office. Who do we think we’re kidding that we can eliminate prejudice—sometimes
so deeply ingrained, it’s subconscious—in a few hours?

Let me take you back to my own experience—one that most of
you can probably relate to. Working in corporate HR of a financial institution
when Diversity (with a capital D, for sure!) took center stage, I was “invited”
to attend a mandatory two-day off-site workshop with other women from the bank.
Not my functional team; just a random group of females with relatively equal
titles. We showed up as assigned, introduced ourselves, and launched into it.

First exercise:

over here, people of color over there.

your group, think of all the pejoratives you can for the other group. Y’know—honky,
cracker, whitey…


form two lines. Sit down, face one another, one foot apart.  

people of color. You go first here; hurl all of those pejoratives at the white
people. White folk, your turn. Spill it—right to their face.

Let’s engage in real, honest dialogue about how that felt and how our dormant
prejudices interfere with our workplace relationships.


Let’s discuss how, in lieu of opening dialogue and
facilitating understanding, this divisive and ill-thought-out exercise trivialized
difference to two major groups. How it alienated and isolated us. How it sparked
anger, fear, and confusion. And how it didn’t get much better from there. When we
wrapped two days later, our hired-gun diversity experts sent us back—wrapped in
a bow and healed, I tell ya.

Training like this provides instant gratification for companies
who can declare, Well, alrightee! We’ve
done diversity
. That wasn’t so bad. What
it doesn’t deliver is results. Despite the good intentions and assumed good
business sense, diversity training often achieves just the opposite of its intended effect: a
study led by a sociologist at the University of Arizona
found that after mandatory
diversity training, representation in upper management dropped for women (7.5 percent), black men (12 percent), and black
women (10%). The Latinos and Asians suffered a similar drop.

Do you really want
diversity that moves the dial on human understanding and the business? Try the tough

  1. Broaden your definition of
    diversity to include all types of difference: mental, emotional, physical,
    spiritual, ornamental,
    and sartorial.
  2. Hire for difference, listen
    for difference, give opportunities to difference, and promote difference.
  3. Expand your talent pool by
    having an office locale that’s reachable via public transportation.
  4. Recognize that people are
    energized for work at different times and in different environments and
    push for work flexibility.
  5. Think back to grade school
    and provide training on how to work through conflicts, deal with bullies,
    and responsibly handle anger.
  6. If you deliver diversity
    training, make it voluntary and then have it focus on how to improve
    collaboration, knowledge-sharing, efficiencies.
  7. Devise informal diversity training. My experience as a lone white person in an African-American literature class during grad school informed me more than any sculpted training program.
  8. Create a stand-in policy
    until the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is passed.
  9. Review your HR policies
    and benefits to ensure they cover and respect
    difference, such as dress
    codes that recognize
    , medical
    benefits that cover gender changes
    , and pay raises for women who ask.
  10. Make it matter. Create
    accountability for statistics around hiring, engagement, development
    opportunities, mentoring relationships, increases, and promotions.

Bottom line: stop talking about not tolerating intolerance and just stop
tolerating it. I’m not a diversity expert (and despite what I’ve said here
about diversity training, I do believe there are people who can be classified
as such). I’m just a woman with a low tolerance for BS.

So tell me, what have I missed?

About the title:
If you’re a fan of Mel Brooks, you know my title alludes to a scene in Blazing Saddles where Mexican bandits and Klansmen sign up to fight in a critical stand-off against a black
sheriff, not that that matters much to them—they’re in it for the cash. Outrageous—particularly
for its release date (1974)—the movie points a raucous finger at the rampant
racism and sexism in movies, particularly of earlier times.

FOT Background Check

Fran Melmed likes to write everything in lower case letters over on her other blog, free-range communication, because she finds it more aesthetically pleasing... but we took away that freedom from her on FOT because the consistency of capitilization on this blog is more aesthetically pleasing to the editor. Her blog is an offshoot of context communication consulting llc, which Fran founded to help organizations communicate better on workforce issues... imagine that. Organizations not doing a good job communicating around workforce issues...


  1. Great post, Fran. Wow, sounds like that diversity training you went through was awful. Why would anyone think that exercise would help to break down barriers or create an atmosphere for open dialogue? Wonder where that facilitator is now?
    Your list of the ‘tough stuff’ is dead-on but unfortunately without some effective diversity training, I’m afraid most companies won’t get there. When most people at the top of companies look, act and sound alike, and the company is doing well (financially and otherwise), it may be harder for them to see the need for diversity and inclusion. And if the message isn’t coming from the top, it’s not going to happen.
    But what if each one of us just took one thing from the list to work on next year? What a difference we could make, no?

  2. Hi Fran, I appreciate your take on diversity training here and agree with a lot of what you say, but I do have to disagree with the need for diversity training…but of course I am a little biased on this issue!
    I think that most organizations are desperately in need of diversity training. I think that diversity and inclusion are incredibly misunderstood today and that there is no shortage of evidence of this.
    Unfortunately there is certainly training that is not done well, not done in the right way or for the right reasons. I feel your pain, as I have sat through a couple of pretty bad sessions myself and have heard a lot of horror stories from clients.
    I think it is important to note that this is not just true of diversity training, a great deal of traditional “training” done in business does not lead to the desired outcomes.
    But that does not change the issue at hand, and I do think that poor training related to diversity and inclusion is especially damaging as it can set the work back and make things worse in an organization. Political correctness has already made us too often prioritize safety and politeness over honesty, and shaky diversity training makes those walls go up higher.
    I think that we are in many ways still applying 20th century definitions, frameworks and tools to a 21st century business issue. I think that the diversity and inclusion conversation needs to be re-set and that our approach needs to be recalibrated, and that most diversity “training” needs to be significantly re-tooled.
    There is actually a great deal of research about what works and what does not work regarding diversity training, unfortunately most of it has not found its way into the business mainstream yet.
    One step at a time.
    Thanks for the great post Fran!

  3. Diane Wrona says:

    We don’t need any diversity training. We need training in interpersonal relationships. We all come to the workplace with our own set of “baggage” based on how we were raised, socio-economic factors, education, plus other individual experiences that formulate who we are as individuals. The definitions of race, sex, and even relgion from the 60s and 70s no longer applies. These lines are blurring. Let’s stop counting who belongs in which category. It should be about how to work and deal with individuals and people, not how to deal with their race, sex, religion or anything else.

  4. Fran,
    You’re brave to take this subject on. I am believer in D&I, but not in the way it is often handled… as you painfully explain. There was an article in a glossy mag (GQ?) in the early 90s, late 80s about diversity training gone bad. Explaining the court cases that eminated out of sessions like yours.
    I like what Diane has to say above. You could almost see it as an intelligence test. Failing in diversity is like failing in anything else in your job… either you can fix it, or you’re out.

  5. debbie says:

    the 2 most effective things that have helped me (call it a lightbulb) were the combination of Gallup strength finders and having a multinational assignment- when you point teams to seek strengths and understanding in others first, and then throw people into having to collaborate across borders, that combination makes differences melt away..

  6. fran melmed says:

    crystal, that facilitator is still in business, believe it or not.
    joe, i wouldn’t disagree that diversity training can shed some light — only that if the majority’s implemented so poorly, recklessly, and without follow-up, what’s the intention? how would you advise companies not go wrong here?
    diane, i like how you put it. my 4th grader just had “training” on how to recognize and deal with a bully. maybe we could start w/that.
    david, ooh — so you’re the heidi klum of diversity training?!
    debbie, multinational teams, expat assignments, and other work-focused experiences. i’m with ya there. i too think they deliver some of the greatest “ah-hah” moments.
    thanks, all!

  7. Beth Terry says:

    IMHO – the most important thing we can do is Increase the Exposure Quotient. Exposure to others who are different. Exposure where we all interact and learn that “the other” isn’t so different from us. Too many Diversity Training programs emphasize difference.
    My 30 years in Hawaii as a minority (whites are 23% of the population, 50% of all marriages are MULTI-Racial) – has given me a much different view of this entire conversation. Too many of the Politically Correct views that are passed off as Diversity Training are crafted by people who find it “embarrassing” to deal with other cultures or who find it distressing that someone might self-describe without a hyphen. Example – my uncle on my husband’s side called himself Black. His daughter called herself African-American. IMHO – THEY GET TO. Diversity Training shouldn’t tell them otherwise.
    My part-Filipino husband laughed so hard he had to sit down when an African-American Diversity Trainer informed the group that they could not call an easel with paper on it a “Flip Chart” because “Filipinos might be offended.” OH GIVE ME A FREAKING BREAK. Are we THAT delicate? Or has Diversity Training MADE us that delicate?
    THANK YOU for bringing this tender subject up… it’s time. I’ve railed against bad Diversity Training for years. It started when my then-college aged stepdaughters (of Japanese ancestry) called me in tears from USC asking “What is wrong with Grandma?” Fearing something healthwise had happened, I asked what they meant. They said, “We were just told we can’t say we are Japanese! We have to be “Asian-American” – we don’t WANT to be Asian-American! Why can’t we say we are Japanese? We ARE, aren’t we?”
    Coming out of Hawaii, where everyone is related, and WHERE WE STILL GET TO CELEBRATE OUR ROOTS AND OUR ANCESTRAL LINES I was appalled. I wrote a piece called, “Political Correctness is the Newest Form of Racism.” I sent it to the local Hawaii newspaper and they put it on the front page, garnering many favorable comments. I sent it to the Washington Post and was summarily dismissed and lectured about my point of view . (What happened to the 5th Estate?)
    I know we need to treat each other better. I know that companies need to be “color blind and gender blind” in their hiring. I know that we need to be sensitive to each other’s choices for religion, cultural beliefs, and ways of life. However, we cannot and should not try and legislate decency.
    Too often, Diversity Training gives people ideas about how they can claim or sue for discrimination when it never occurred to them or offended them before. Are the Diversity Trainers Teaching how to be offended? Or how to think differently about those who are different? That’s an important distinction.
    We had a Diversity Trainer address a Hawaii ASTD conference back when all this started. He was African-American. His entire speech was about white vs black. He ignored the room – which was a huge conglomeration of “brown” — we had all sorts of mixed race in that room — which is the major demographic of Hawaii. A Korean gentleman walked in late and took a seat at an empty table. The trainer seized on that and pointed this gentleman out as being discriminated against “for being FORCED to sit alone.” The guy looked at the speaker like he had lost his mind and shook his head.
    I finally stood up at the question microphone and asked the speaker if he had LOOKED at his audience – did he notice the diversity in the room right then? At the time, I was married to a man who was (in his own self-description) Hawaiian-Tahitian-Filipino-Chinese-Spanish. This speaker accused ME of being racist.
    This mindset of creating upset and creating divisions where there are none has to stop. If we look at the numbers, hate crimes have gone UP, not DOWN, since Diversity Training began. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hate_crime_laws_in_the_United_States
    It is high time we start to acknowledge that and find a way to Celebrate Multi-Cultural Communities… which by the way is 180 degrees OUT from Diversity Training and Political Correctness. A Multi-Cultural Celebration allows us to notice and talk about the different religious and cultural ceremonies. And it doesn’t automatically make every single white person out to be a racist. Nor does it ignore the traditions of a white person. It seems the whole Diversity thing is against the white culture. And that is just as wrong as ignoring any other culture. It’s really OK to talk about a Bon Dance, Chinese New Year, Christmas, Hannukkah, and Kwanzaa. It’s how different cultures celebrate. Unless and until we can do that, Diversity Training is a failure.

  8. BrianD82 says:

    Wow! Thanks for an outstanding post on this too often politically correct subject.
    I have gone through over 48 hours of classroom Diversity “Training” which was really indoctrination into extremist left wing group identity politics.
    This included a THREE day indoctrination off site at one company I worked at that was a total waste of time. I heard distortions and out right lies about history (did you know that Cleopatra was Black?? Must have been a shock to her Greek ancestors!), stereotypes of different groups, and even had a joke told about the basic tenants of the Roman Catholic Faith. This joke was NOT funny and less than half of the class laughed (it was more like a nervous chuckle). The five Diversity “Trainers” laughed the hardest…they were quite pleased with themselves and their cleverness. If someone had told a similar joke about Blacks, they probably would been found themselves laid off not too soon after the “Training.” But jokes about Catholics are just fine with Diversity “Trainers.”
    Diversity “Training” is usually just pushing the extreme left wing agenda down the throats of a captive audience.
    Example: Excerpts from University of Delaware Office of Residence Life Diversity Facilitation Training
    October 30, 2007
    “A RACIST: A racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality. By this definition, people of color cannot be racists, because as peoples within the U.S. system, they do not have the power to back up their prejudices, hostilities, or acts of discrimination. (This does not deny the existence of such prejudices, hostilities, acts of rage or discrimination.)” – Page 3
    “REVERSE RACISM: A term created and used by white people to deny their white privilege. Those in denial use the term reverse racism to refer to hostile behavior by people of color toward whites, and to affirmative action policies, which allegedly give ‘preferential treatment’ to people of color over whites. In the U.S., there is no such thing as ‘reverse racism.'”
    See: http://bit.ly/7UraoW
    Diversity “Training” is usually about who are the Oppressors (Whites) and the Victims of White Oppression (all Non-whites). This is usually discussed as White Privilege or White Male Privilege.
    These is no scientifically valid evidence to prove that White Privilege even exists and yes, the burden of proof is on the Diversity “Trainers.” After all, in the USA, even Whites are innocent until proven guilty.
    I agree with the other people that posted here that say this is an interpersonal skills issue. I would add that most of the Diversity Mission Statements of companies, that I have seen, say the ultimate goal of Diversity is to get different and new perspectives on how to increase customer service/satisfaction, cut costs, give better value to the stockholders, better problem solving, etc.
    How Diversity “Training” that claims all Whites are Racist accomplishes any goal at all (except a goal for Whites to do much MORE “power sharing” in all aspects of corporate and public policy actions) remains a mystery.
    The Democratic Party is one organization that is chock full of Diversity. Yet, Democrats all have the same perspective on abortion, raising/creating taxes, increase spending & size of government, etc.
    So where is the different perspectives here? The perspectives are all the same! Where is the Diversity here??
    We need to do Interpersonal Skills training, how to create TRUE Intellectual Diversity training, and maybe how to hire people that are best qualified yet bring a different perspective to our company training. Diversity “Training” as it exists now is at best counter productive, and at worst, a way to make anti-White racism respectable and then use this for nefarious purposes.
    We need to junk the current Diversity “Training” model and start over. The new module must have Interpersonal Skills, how to create TRUE Intellectual Diversity, and how to hire people that are best qualified yet bring a different perspective to our company Training.

  9. I'm Black not A-A and def not African says:

    Great topic and article but some of the comments illustrate the point of the topic and the commenters don’t even realize it (i.e. they don’t know diversity as well as they think they do).
    Invalid assumptions
    – Because you are, know, love, married, and/or spend a lot of time with minorities does not make you diverse nor does it make you an expert on diversity.
    – Most Americans of color are not 100% any one race. And therefore labeling them as ____-American is inaccurate. Just as inaccurate as it would be for a person who is black, born in American with no recent, direct descendants born on the African continent to say they are African. So why would someone that is Asian, born in American and of mixed race be JUST the Asian race? You can call yourself what you like, but that doesn’t always make it so. I’m not saying go as far as Tiger Woods did, “Caublasian.” But the fact is as an individual of mixed race/background, you disregard your ancestry/ancestors and disrespect yourself when you single yourself out as just one race.
    – Understanding diversity is enough. No, it must be appreciated to be truely effective in the workplace. Many places I’ve worked for failed at the 1st part. And others that did understand diversity didn’t always appreciate it and ultimately failed still, just further along in the process. Example, for 12 years I was a young (20-32), black, male manager in an industry dominated by older (35+ but the avg age group at most places was 50-60+), white, women. At my last place of employment in the industry (call and contact center) after we completed diversity training (is there really an end? journey or trip?) I received an annual review from my VP that basically said my deep voice and serious demeanor affected how willing my employees were to come to me for help. Well needless to say the deepness of my voice relate to my sex and size. So I quickly found a new industry and employer … leaving that company with ZERO mid-managers of color and none in upper management.
    – Cleopatra … LOL! Talk about a foot in mouth post. See post above regarding purity of race. Egypt was a mecca of collaboration between Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. People traded there, lived there, and ruled there from the outside – the poster said Greek. More specifically the Ptolemies were Macedonian. And they were obsessed with keeping their bloodlines pure. So they intermarried almost exclusively. But as much as they intermarried (business), they sought pleasure and comfort from the courtiers and concubines that filled their palaces. They did not single the children of these unions outide of royal lineage. Many researchers believe that Cleopatra’s father was the product of such a union – his mother may have been a concubine from Nubia (modern day Ethiopia which at the time was not of mixed cultures) or Alexandria (south of Egypt and not as mixed in culture as Egypt at the time). Since during those times historians talked more about the color of one’s skin than their race and since the Ptolemies chose not to discriminate or segregate the children born of Nubian-Ptolemy unions, no one can be certain that Cleopatra was not black. What is certain is that she was not 100% Macedonian and she was not 100% Nubian/black. But what we do know from history is that unlike any other Ptolemy rulers of Egypt, Cleopatra immersed herself in Egypt (the culture, language, art, sciences, mythology, etc.). To those with an inkling of common sense, it is clear that the biggest reason she would do this is her knowing that she was descended from both the Ptolemies of Macedonia and Egypt.

  10. James says:

    Oh my. I can’t read that many comments. I’ll go blind. Just wanted to say “thanks” for the blog and to some degree, for being willing to fly in the face of political correctness. BTW, the original “stinking badges” line was from the 1948 film “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, starring Humphrey Bogart: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0040897/quotes . Brooks was “parodizing”, which he does so well.

  11. wow – what a vibrant conversation taking place here. i love it, and thanks to you guys for not being shy about having conversations about diversity or race even despite the fact that it can be uncomfortable.
    @fran… love the line in the post about your bottom line – that we stop talking and just stop tolerating it.
    @i’m black not AA def not African – LOL for this: “Because you are, know, love, married, and/or spend a lot of time with minorities does not make you diverse nor does it make you an expert on diversity.” i had to call that out because what good stuff. worst excuse ever that having a best friend who’s black doesn’t make you a racist. i’ve heard that plenty a times… sigh.

  12. Diversity training shouldn’t start in the workplace – it should start in school, during kindergarten.
    Excellent post, Fran. Still can’t believe that the trainer you described is out in the marketplace still disrespecting people and companies…incredible!

  13. Fran Melmed says:

    thanks for everyone’s comments, thoughts, and perspectives. i know it’s easier because we’re doing it from our the security of our pcs, but it’s fantastic to see the openness of the exchange. take it back into your workplace, y’all.

  14. Joshua Letourneau says:

    Fran, interesting post – I agree with your take on how we should stop tolerating intolerance.
    There is a societal undertone in the following, however: “Let’s discuss how, in lieu of opening dialogue and facilitating understanding, this divisive and ill-thought-out exercise trivialized difference to two major groups. How it alienated and isolated us. How it sparked anger, fear, and confusion. And how it didn’t get much better from there. When we wrapped two days later, our hired-gun diversity experts sent us back—wrapped in a bow and healed, I tell ya.”
    It’s often easy to sweep prejudices under the rug, and/or to not speak about them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. As they say, the best place to hide is in plain sight, right?
    I think the bigger question is whether the workplace is the right place to begin exercising these types of demons? My answer is “probably not.”
    Ultimately, it’s not only a sign of intellectual maturity, but moreover personal development, to be able to shift our frame of reference and see things from a solely ethnocentric standpoint. Let’s hope the Managers, Directors, and just Leaders of our organizations are aware of this concept, right? 🙂

  15. BrianD82 says:

    Not to belabor the points made re: Cleopatra, but she was a tyrant that could/did have people killed or thrown in prison depending on her moods. The cost in human lives, suffering, freedom, and even wars she caused was vastly greater than any benefits her accomplishments as a queen of Egypt could ever justify. Why ANY group would want to claim her as one their superstars is problematic at best.
    I can relate to the poster that received an annual review from their VP that basically said their deep voice and serious demeanor affected how willing their employees were to come to them for help. As an HR professional, I cringe when I hear about reviews like that one. Exactly what did the VP expect you to do? Get surgery on your voice box to make your voice less deep??! Take prescription drugs to make you less serious? Yikes! I wonder how HR could even sign off on a review as ridiculous as this!
    I had a boss, a Black Female, that was the Staffing and Diversity Manager for a company of 6000 employees, who told me that I needed to check my values in at the door when I come in to work everyday. Now, she and I never discussed what my values are, she just assumed what my values must be by looking at my skin color and gender (White Male). Of course, any other values that were not White Male values (what exactly does she think White Male values are?) were welcomed by her at work. And this came from the person who is supposedly a HR professional AND the Diversity Manager!
    Again, we need to junk the current Diversity “Training” model and start over. The new model must have Interpersonal Skills training, how to create TRUE Intellectual Diversity training, and how to hire people that are best qualified yet bring a different perspective to our company type Training.

  16. Fran Melmed says:

    josh, i hear ya on whether or not this belongs in the workplace. i work on wellness and health communication with many clients — and that’s another place where that same question is asked. ultimately, when it affects the business, it needs to be in the business.
    briand82, yup, yup, yup!

  17. Discrimination or sexual stereotypes are always going to be a part of our society, we just need to get used to, even if is annoying, Im a latino and I know what is like been discriminated.

  18. fran melmed says:

    sex stereotypes, if you’re still tracking this conversation, i’d love to have you say more about what “getting used to” stereotypes and discrimination looks like to you and why you think we should stop there.

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