We Don’t Need No Stinking Diversity Training

franmelmed Diversity, Fran Melmed

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.