How Workplaces Get Diversity Training Wrong

Workplace diversity isn’t just good for your employees’ wellbeing — it’s also good for business.

Back in 2015, a McKinsey report found that companies with management teams in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were also 15% more likely to have returns above their industry means.

Image credit: McKinsey

But diversity isn't a merely business play. It's a human play .

But diversity isn’t a simply business play. It’s a human play . And as more companies start to incorporate diversity programs into their training and hiring practises, many are failing to develop truly meaningful, empathetic initiatives that go beyond surface-level quotas and checkboxes.

A recent investigation by Harvard Business Review found that some common tactics like mandatory skill appraisal tests to reduce hiring bias, annual performance ratings to evaluate pay gaps, grievance systems to rehabilitate biased directors, and compulsory diversity training programs to educate employees merely aren’t doing enough to bringing organizations into the 21 st century. In fact, some of these initiatives might even have an adverse impact on organizational health, reinforcing bias instead of alleviating its damage.

Laboratory studies show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out .

According to sociology professors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, “Those[ diversity initiatives] are designed to preempt lawsuits by policing managers’ thoughts and actions. Yet laboratory analyzes show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out . As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their independence. Try to coerce me to do X, Y, or Z, and Iall do the opposite simply to prove that Iam my own person.”

By no means does this study indicate you should abandon your company’s diversity program for dread of failure. It means it’s day for a more empathetic, self-aware approach to diversity — in the workplace and beyond.

Adam Foss, a former Assistant District Attorney in the Suffolk County District Attorneyas Office in Boston and the founder of Prosecutor Impact, sat down with The INBOUND Studioan interview series that highlightings relevant themes at the intersection of pop-culture, business and advocacy — to discuss diversity, empathy, and the complexity of privilege.

At Prosecutor Impact, Foss builds training programs for prosectors, teaching them to take a more empathetic, conscious approach to their work and the betterment of the communities they practice within. He’s found that cultivating empathy, rather than diversity alone, is necessary for creating real cultural changes .

“Empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings and experiences of another. That is not what diversity entails. Diversity simply literally entails ‘difference.'” – Adam Foss

“Empathy is the key driver of success in the criminal justice system, because its so devoid of empathy, or anything that requires empathy, ” Foss explains in the interview. “I think that’s why we’re in the mess that we’re in now with the incarceration population, the sizing that it is and who it’s affecting. It has marginalized people — period. To actually start turning that corner and succeed and be careful to ensure that change, there’s been a drive to create empathy as part of the education of folks . “

The training at Prosecutor Impact focuses on building empathy through both academic and experiential learn, training attorneys on topics that deepen their understanding of the communities they serve, and confronting them immediately with the realities of incarceration to strengthen their capacity for empathy.

“People are on board with that part of it: getting this new visceral experience, learning these new things, ” Foss tells. “Where it gets difficult is when you have to start tackling harder issues like what is the role of race, what is the role of gender, and religion, and sex orientation.”

“When you start having those questions, people get defensive, or disprove their privilege by talking about how they had[ difficulties] and how they made up for them. And both sets of things are really dangerous and counterproductive when you’re trying to change culture . “

Refocusing Diversity Initiatives in the Workplace

Foss admits that discussing privilege is “a difficult conversation to get started, ” but it’s a conversation worth having. Becoming well informed the privilege you possess is the first step to leveraging it in a meaningful route, and many conventional diversity programs fail to address this.

Focusing on empathy and self-awareness over quotas and trainings aimed at instantaneously stripping away biases is a more holistic, realistic approach to embracing a more diverse workplace and world.

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