Diversity Training Doesn’t Have to Be Divisive

ViewHR Team
October 12, 2021
People unites hands in the center

Recent years have seen a shift to greater social consciousness when it comes to racial and gender issues. In many ways, this has been a change for the better. 

For instance, one positive result of this shift has been that, today, companies not only wrestle with boosting their bottom lines, but also with social responsibility and attempting to address the imbalances that exist when it comes to minority and female representation in the workforce. 

That same shift has also led to the widespread prominence of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs. Again, in many ways, this is a change for the better. Workplaces should welcome people from a wide range of racial, ethnic, and other backgrounds, and do their best to ensure that everyone feels welcomed, appreciated, respected, and valued for who they are and what they bring.  

However, DEI programs can be implemented in a way that can result in a backlash—both internally and publicly—and lead to more toxicity and tension, instead of less. This often comes from an approach that treats understands people, first and foremost, as members of the—especially racial and ethnic—identity groups they belong to and then makes generalizations about those groups. This approach loses sight of two important points. First, not everyone views their own identity—who they feel they are—in that manner. Second, most of us want to be seen, understood, and treated based on who we are as individuals. Dismissing these points leads to decisions that move companies further from the culture they want to build. 

Here are a few examples of strategies following this more divisive approach that have cost companies embarrassment, considerable amounts of time and money, and even unforeseen legal liabilities:

  1. Coca-Cola used diversity training materials that encouraged staff to "try to be less white." One of the slides read that, "In the U.S. and other Western nations, white people are socialized to feel that they are inherently superior because they are white." 
  2. Google used training materials that asserted all Americans were “raised to be racist” in a “white supremacy pyramid.” In one video, guest lecturer Ibram Kendi said: "To be raised in the United States, is to be raised to be racist, and to be raised to be racist is to be raised to almost be addicted to racist ideas."
  3. Lockheed Martin sent high-ranking executives to a training course that asked them to come to grips with "white male culture" and "heterosexual privilege.” In one session, diversity trainers led a “free association” exercise, asking the Lockheed employees to list connotations for the term “white men.” Terms written down include “old, racist, privileged, anti-women, angry, Aryan Nation, KKK, Founding fathers, guns, guilty, can’t jump.”
  4. Raytheon adopted a training program that asked white employees to deconstruct their identities and “identify [their] privilege.” Leaked training documents asserted that “white, straight, Christian, able-bodied, English-speaking men are at the top of the intersectional hierarchy—and must work on “recognizing [their] privilege” and “step aside” in favor of other identity groups. 
  5. Bank of America implemented a training program that described the United States as a system of “white supremacy” and encouraged employees to become “woke at work,” instructing white employees in particular to “decolonize your mind” and “cede power to people of color.” According to the training program, all whites — “regardless of one’s socioeconomic class background or other disadvantages” — [are] “living a life with white-skin privileges.” 
  6. CVS used training material that required employees to circle their identities—including their race, gender, sexuality, and religion—and then reflect on their "privilege." Examples of privilege, according to a checklist, included "celebrat[ing] Christmas," "hav[ing] a name that is easy to pronounce," "feel[ing] safe in your neighborhood at night," and "feel[ing] confident in my leadership style." Another exercise, called "Say This, Not That," provided employees with detailed racial etiquette "reference cards" to reorient their speech to the values of "diversity, equity, and inclusion." Employees were told to cease using "problematic phrases," including "I grew up poor," "I’m not racist," and "we must stand up for minorities."
  7. Verizon adopted a training program that instructed employees to deconstruct their racial and sexual identities and, according to their position on the “privilege” hierarchy, embark on a lifelong “anti-racism journey.” Employees were asked to list their “race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, religion, education, profession, and sexual orientation” on an official company worksheet. They were then instructed to consider their status according to the theory of “intersectionality,” a theory that reduces individuals to a network of identity categories, which then determine whether they are an “oppressor” or “oppressed.”
  8. American Express hired a consulting firm that trained AmEx employees to deconstruct their identities, mapping their “race, sexual orientation, body type, religion, disability status, age, gender identity, [and] citizenship” onto an official company worksheet. After employees categorized their identities, they then determined whether they have “privilege” or whether they are a member of a “marginalized group” that is “underrepresented, stigmatized, or otherwise undervalued in society.”

These approaches share well-intentioned goals. Those goals include a desire to increase employees’ awareness of the ways in which race has been and continues to be a barrier in everyday life and a desire to get employees to think about the concept of unearned advantage. These are important things for people to be aware of and are worthy of deep discussion, a discussion where participants will likely ultimately disagree. The approach taken by the companies listed here, along with countless other organizations whose methods were never picked up by the press, allows for none of that nuance.

So what can we learn from these? Here are some broad take-aways. 

  1. Identity matters. But framing the world exclusively through the lens of different identity groups (one’s race, ethnicity, gender, etc…) is often ultimately divisive. 
  2. Generalizations about groups (racial or otherwise) often breed resentment and increase tension.
  3. Moral shaming, compelled speech, and the mandatory adoption of a particular  ideology are not likely to result in greater harmony within any organization. 

Unlike these examples of DEI training gone awry, ViewHR brings a constructive approach. We focus on seeing people as individuals and building a sense of common humanity. By encouraging respect, charity, and by giving people the benefit of doubt, ViewHR can help you build a healthy and sustainable workplace culture.

divides top and bottom content