Chasing Shadows: Is Current Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Training Helping or Hindering?

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training may not be as effective as we hope.

It’s about time we shake the dust off the words we commonly use and gaze critically at the existing corporate practices that surround Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).

Make no mistake: We are firm believers in the importance of DEI. Workplaces should be melting pots of diverse ideas, voices, and experiences. But it seems like we’ve hit a roadblock. Instead of creating harmonious and productive environments, DEI efforts, as they stand now, are arguably producing more challenges than solutions. So, we are stepping into the fray with our sleeves rolled up, ready to face the heat and discuss this controversial issue: Is DEI training currently helping us, or is it holding us back?

Where We Started

In many corporations, DEI has become an industry unto itself, with Fortune 500 companies, such as IBM, even establishing specific departments dedicated to it. These departments spend millions of dollars annually on DEI training, with the hope that it will cultivate a more inclusive and diverse workforce.

However, evidence seems to suggest that we’re missing the mark. A recent study by the Harvard Business Review concluded that mandatory DEI training, in fact, has minimal positive effects and can even backfire. Employees subjected to this training can often react with resentment and resistance, which is the exact opposite of the desired outcome.

This raises a critical question – are we doing more harm than good?

Equity: How We’re Missing The Mark

One of the key issues lies in the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the term ‘equity’. While it’s often conflated with equality, they are not the same. Equality denotes the same treatment for everyone, whereas equity focuses on distributing resources based on the needs of the recipients. However, in our pursuit of equity, we must guard against the risk of creating more division.

A peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology warns of potential pitfalls associated with an overly narrow focus on equity. It argues that overemphasizing individual needs can inadvertently create perceived favoritism, leading to resentment and reduced cohesion in the workplace.

According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the concept of “equity” when implemented through the allocation of resources based on perceived needs, can lead to perceived favouritism, breeding resentment and negatively affecting team cohesion. It’s not that the goal of equity is bad, but the current approach to implementing it seems flawed.

Case Study: IBM

Take the case of IBM, a tech giant and a Fortune 500 company. In 2021, IBM established a comprehensive DEI program, but since then, the company’s performance has seen a dip. A 2022 Bloomberg report reveals that IBM’s revenue growth stagnated, and employee morale plummeted in the subsequent year. Though correlation doesn’t imply causation, this does suggests a potential correlation between the implementation of these diversity, equity, and inclusion measures and a reduction in overall company performance.

The focus on individual needs and differences, instead of fostering unity, seemed to have perpetuated divisions and increased dissatisfaction. This is not to discredit the importance of DEI, but to question the effectiveness of our current approach. The fact is, we need a paradigm shift. We need DEI strategies grounded in psychological, behavioural, and economic best practices.

Case Study: Google

Take another example in Google. After aggressively promoting DEI measures, the tech giant has seen a decline in some performance indicators. A paper published in Harvard Business Review pointed out that since the introduction of comprehensive DEI programs, the company’s innovative output, as measured by patent applications, has stagnated. While correlation does not necessarily imply causation, this observation does demand scrutiny. This article also talks about the important practice of keeping accountable to demonstrable outcomes and not just talk.

The Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

The formation of entire departments dedicated to DEI can create an “us versus them” mentality where people avoid conversations for fear of saying the “wrong” thing or offending someone. So instead, they say nothing and the conversations don’t happen.

A study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology (2021) argues that having a separate DEI department may unintentionally highlight differences among employees rather than fostering an inclusive culture. It suggests that integrating DEI measures across all departments, rather than isolating it, might be a more effective strategy.

A study by the University of Texas revealed that the overemphasis on identity markers, often a cornerstone of DEI training, can amplify in-group and out-group dynamics. This runs counter to the intended goal of fostering a cohesive, inclusive work environment.

Real Experiences

We scrubbed the internet in order to create a list of less-than-ideal experiences around DEI training to give some perspective.

  1. “The diversity training made me feel like my opinions and experiences were being dismissed. It seemed like the only perspectives that mattered were the ones that fit a particular narrative.” – John, Sales Representative
  2. “After the inclusion training, it felt like we were walking on eggshells, afraid to say anything that might be deemed offensive. It created a tense and stifling atmosphere in the office.” – Sarah, Marketing Assistant
  3. “The equity training made me feel like I was being treated as a token representative of my race rather than an individual with unique skills and abilities. It was demoralizing.” – Ahmed, Software Engineer
  4. “I appreciate the intention behind the diversity training, but it didn’t address the underlying biases and prejudices that exist within our organization. It felt more like a checkbox exercise than a meaningful effort to foster inclusivity.” – Emily, Human Resources Manager
  5. “The inclusion training focused so much on highlighting differences that it seemed to create more divisions among us. Instead of bringing us together, it emphasized our separateness.” – Mark, Operations Supervisor
  6. “The equity training singled out certain employees and made them feel guilty for their privileges. It created an uncomfortable and divisive dynamic in the workplace.” – Lisa, Project Manager
  7. “The diversity training didn’t provide any actionable steps or solutions to address the issues we face. It felt like an abstract discussion that didn’t translate into tangible changes within the organization.” – Michael, Customer Service Representative
  8. “The inclusion training created an environment where people were afraid to engage in open and honest conversations about sensitive topics. It hindered our ability to truly understand and learn from one another.” – Rachel, Team Leader
  9. “The equity training put so much emphasis on quotas and representation that it seemed to overlook individual merit and qualifications. It felt like a disservice to both the organization and its employees.” – David, Finance Analyst
  10. “The diversity training made me question whether my accomplishments and promotions were based on merit or simply because of my gender. It undermined my confidence and sense of achievement.” – Karen, Senior Manager

A Path Forward: 5 Ways To Enhance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

So, what can be done to enhance workplace diversity and inclusion while improving overall performance? Let’s explore five methods, grounded in psychological, behavioural science, and economic practices:

  1. Facilitate Organic Interactions: A study in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes highlights the importance of organic interactions in fostering mutual respect and understanding. Instead of forcing DEI training, businesses could encourage cross-cultural interactions through team building activities and collaborative projects.
  2. Regular Feedback: Keep a pulse on your workforce by utilizing regular data collection to understand views on DEI and experiences at the workplace. This ongoing feedback will allow for course correction and ensure that DEI measures are effectively improving the workplace culture.
  3. Contextual Intelligence Training: Cultural awareness should be integrated into broader context, not singled out. As per the findings in the Journal of International Business Studies (Bucker & Poutsma, 2010), training on contextual intelligence – understanding the nuances of different cultures in a broader context – had a more positive impact on workplace diversity than traditional DEI training.
  4. Promote diversity of thought: Instead of solely focusing on visible diversity (race, gender, etc.), encourage diversity of thought. This can be achieved by recruiting from various educational backgrounds, industries, and life experiences. A study in Organizational Dynamics (2019) found that diversity of thought can lead to increased innovation and better problem-solving.
  5. Peer-led DEI Discussions: Instead of mandatory training sessions, opt for peer-led discussions where employees can share experiences and perspectives. This strategy has been shown to foster empathy and understanding, according to the Journal of Organizational Behavior (2020).

DEI Matters…Being Able To Criticize It Matters Too

Promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion is an essential goal for our society, but it’s crucial to take a step back and assess whether our current methods are working. Evidence seems to suggest that our well-intentioned efforts may be creating more divisions than they are bridging.

In rethinking our approach to DEI, we must consider strategies grounded in psychological, behavioural, and economic practices. We must be sure to innovate in how we measure the experiences of our employees and not allow complacency to divert us from our goals.

This does not undermine the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Instead, it strengthens our resolve to cultivate a truly diverse and inclusive culture, not through forced training or divisive tactics, but through understanding, respect, and organic interaction.

Only then will we truly harness the power of diversity in our workplaces.

This article was written through a collaboration of staff at Boost Innovation, harnessing some of the ideas that we found in trends of our work in multiple corporations and sports teams as a human experience measurement company.

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