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Illustration by Jess Suttner
Life

When Implicit Bias Training Antagonizes the Workers It’s Supposed to Help

In the fast-growing diversity and inclusion industry, sometimes inexperienced trainers are doing more harm than good.
June 28, 2021, 11:00am

Last December, Nakia Wallace logged onto an all-staff Zoom meeting for a diversity and inclusion training at an education nonprofit in Detroit, Michigan. It’s an increasingly common practice, along with sexual harassment training, at American offices, with the goal of teaching employees how to foster a work culture free of discriminatory behaviors. 

Like many of her colleagues, Wallace, 24, is well-versed in the language of racial justice and social change. “Detroit is the Blackest city in the nation,” she tells me over the phone with pride, while noting the high rates of poverty and underfunded schools that plague her beloved hometown. After George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last year, Wallace launched an organization called Detroit Will Breathe that rallied against anti-Black racism for 200 days straight. When she was arrested at a protest in June for clashing with Detroit police, images of an officer using a chokehold to pin Wallace to the ground, symbolizing the excesses of state force used to crush the voices of Black youth, splashed across local news.

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By the time her boss hired a diversity consultant to council staff on equity in the workplace, Wallace was already on edge. Her organization was not immune to the systemic inequities that are often ingrained within office culture—the segregated hierarchy of all-white executives, the reports of pay disparities and passed over promotions for Black and Latino staffers. But it was the workshop session, led by a white out-of-town consultant, that was the final straw for Wallace. In a lesson on extending compassion and empathy to others, one of the trainer’s entreaties was so outrageous that several workers stormed away from their laptops in anger: She wanted people to understand that Hitler wasn’t always a bad person.

“She even said: ‘When you get to know Hitler, when you read about Hitler, you realize that he was made into the person that he was,’” Wallace recalled. Alarmed, Wallace jumped in. “I remember interrupting her to say I am not going to participate in a conversation that centers the experiences of Hitler over the victims of violence and extreme racism,’' Wallace says. “The whole thing was crazy.”

The eyebrow-raising moments didn’t stop there either: The diversity consultant, seemingly eager to connect with the largely Black and Latino workers in attendance, mentioned that her son had recently taken an at-home DNA test and discovered he was 14 percent Black. 

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“She kept referring to Africa as ‘the motherland,’” Wallace adds.

American companies are still grappling with last summer’s social reckoning on race. Gone are the days when businesses were governed by an unspoken rule that employees must leave their personal and political opinions at the door. Now companies are expected to openly embrace diversity, by both weaving it into their marketing and enacting new policies. Major banks, like JPMorgan and Bank of America, responded to the 2020 protests by pledging billions of dollars to help narrow the racial wealth gap, while author Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book White Fragility, rocketed up bestsellers’ lists, becoming required reading for white C-suite executives who needed Cliff’s Notes on race (and later became a punchline for the irony of elevating a white woman as an expert on confronting racism).

At the forefront of the corporate seismic shift is a growing number of diversity and inclusion consultants and firms tasked with helping companies navigate these new norms. The industry is booming: In 2003, corporate spending on diversity initiatives amounted to roughly $8 billion, and in the past year, diversity specialists got an overwhelming deluge of requests for their services. A survey released in June found that 52 percent of S&P 500 companies now have a dedicated “chief diversity officer” on staff.

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Training courses—known as diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI—emerged after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to teach employers how to avoid discriminating against workers and avert the expensive lawsuits that follow unfair labor practices. Since then, diversity workshops have morphed into crisis prevention strategies to preserve a company’s image. In an era where unflattering headlines exposing racial insensitivity or unjust behaviors can tank a company’s reputation and detract top talent in the workforce, DEI is often used to project a company’s values.

But as the diversity business has exploded, so too have inevitable growing pains. A single mandatory workshop, held once a year in a corporate workplace setting, is highly unlikely to radically reverse deeply entrenched racial stereotypes and unequal power structures. And as some companies are finding out, even the self-proclaimed experts in diversity and inclusion are prone to get things wrong.

“Unfortunately, the failure of practitioners comes at the cost of marginalized employees at the workplace,” said Lily Zheng, an independent diversity and inclusion strategist based in Silicon Valley. “While we in the industry have our learning moments, it causes marginalized folks to suffer.”

Due to the sensitive nature of the topics covered in diversity training, it doesn’t help when the trainers themselves seem out of their depth. Many of the workers I spoke with told stories of well-meaning workshop leaders, often white, who failed to pick up the nuances of microaggressions directed toward people of color. 

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Victoria, who is not using her full name out of fear of retaliation at work, was the sole Black person attending a diversity training for the insurance company where she works in Atlanta, Georgia. To open the workshop, the trainer, a consultant based in the Midwest, described attending a video conference with a Black woman, who had a headwrap twisted around her locks, which disappeared into a virtual background every time the woman moved. She decided to point out the technical snafu to everyone in the meeting, couching it with a comment that the woman’s hair was “beautiful.” 

The message from their boss was clear: She wanted the racially diverse group of workers to explain to the diversity trainer what she did wrong.

The trainer had relayed this story as an example of a teachable moment, an opportunity to “celebrate” everyone’s differences. Victoria instead saw it as a strange way to single someone out, especially given how Black hair is often exoticized by other cultures. Victoria’s private message thread with a group of work friends quickly lit up with disbelief. As the trainer wrapped up her story, Victoria’s coworker channeled his reaction by sharing a meme of LeBron James with a look of exasperated confusion on his face.

“It was just cringey,” she recalls. “I had no faith in the training after that intro.”

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In many cases, DEI training is the corporate-ready answer for employees who say they feel burdened by expectations to educate their managers and coworkers on sensitive issues about race and sexuality. John, an art administrator based in Chicago, Illinois, said he felt an intense pressure to help white administrators grasp the gravity of 2020’s protests. His organization initially resisted calls to issue a statement on racial justice. It was only after they lost business—a major funder opted to instead work with organizations that explicitly champion Black and brown communities—that leaders enacted diversity training. His organization’s workshops on inclusion, led by a Black woman in multiple sessions, evolved into mediated therapy sessions, helping the directors at his organization, all of whom were white, realize the extent of the emotional weight that John carried as the only person of color on staff. 

But the quality of these workshops can be hit or miss. Research into the efficacy of workplace diversity programs have consistently shown disappointing—if not damning—results. In a study of more than 800 large and mid-sized companies, sociologists Alexandra Kalev of Tel Aviv University and Frank Dobbin of Harvard University, found that efforts to increase diversity within workforces through implicit bias training and workshops “failed spectacularly.”

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Five years after implementing the training curriculum, companies saw little change in the share of white women, Black men, or Hispanics represented in managerial positions. In fact, the proportion of Black women in those roles actually decreased by an average of 9 percent, while Asian representation for men and women also dropped between 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

According to Kalev, these workshops fail to deliver results, in part, because they are mandatory. While the intent in helping workers become more aware of their unconscious biases is to help them overcome prejudices, oftentimes when white employees, in particular, feel they are forced to change behaviors, many grow defensive and resistant. “The topics are so emotionally charged that if they're not done with care, they have the opportunity to really blow up and backfire on organizations,” Kalev said.

One of the core issues with the industry is that there are no agreed-upon best practices. Consultants are not required to be licensed or certified before marketing their services. And many approaches to DEI run the risk of becoming the culture war du jour when workshops take lessons on racial justice to an extreme. 

In February, Coca-Cola faced public outcry after employees said their “Confronting Racism” workshop instructed them to “try to be less white.” But Coca-Cola said the course, which featured some material from White Fragility, was not mandatory or issued by the beverage company itself. Instead it had been licensed through a third-party content creator and distributed by LinkedIn Learning. Other DEI initiatives have faced criticism for focusing too narrowly on anti-Black racism, and thereby downplaying other forms of bigotry. In June, two Jewish mental health workers filed a workplace discrimination complaint against Stanford after a diversity training program for the university’s on-campus counseling clinic led to, in their view, a “hostile and unwelcoming environment” for Jewish employees. According to the complaint, the workshop even perpetuated the harmful stereotype that Jews are “wealthy and powerful business owners.”

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On the other spectrum of extremes, some courses offer little substantive advice, if any at all. Brian, a government employee who is using a pseudonym out of employment concerns, recently told me they were shocked to see a pastor leading the diversity seminar for all county employees working in his region of South Carolina. The training focused almost entirely on the Golden Rule—the religious principle to treat others as they would want to be treated—and failed to even mention sexuality or gender identity during the workshop, Brian said. Of course, the problem with the Golden Rule is that different people have different preferences with how they want to be treated.

Workshop attendees seemed mildly annoyed by the pastor’s presence, but not entirely surprised, he added. "It's South Carolina. So what do you expect?" 

A few days after a diversity training consultant encouraged empathy for Hitler, Wallace and her colleagues at the Detroit education nonprofit were called into another video conference to give the trainer an opportunity to apologize to the group for her insensitivity. 

“People were like: ‘She doesn’t deserve to be here. We should not have to sit in her presence,’” Wallace said. But the message from their boss was clear: She wanted the racially diverse group of workers to explain to the diversity trainer what she did wrong.

Rumored to be a close personal friend of the CEO, the trainer had been an educator for many years before joining the now-booming industry of diversity and inclusion training. “Once again you see white people taking it upon themselves to make a dollar off of the movement,” Wallace said.

For all of the good intentions of DEI training to create a more equitable workplace and retain diverse talent, in Wallace’s case, it did just the opposite. Four months after the workshop, she left the nonprofit, preferring to take a pay cut with part-time work at a new company than stick around any longer.

“I don’t have healthcare now,” she says. “But I had to go.”

Follow Amanda Sakuma on Twitter.