3 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Ask Employees to Provide Free Diversity Training

Claudia Stack

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Rightly or wrongly, in our society we pay for what we value

My employer just asked for volunteers to serve on a initiative to recruit more qualified candidates of color. On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with this. On closer examination, it speaks volumes.

In our society, whether we like it or not, the most significant way we show that we value something is our willingness to pay for that knowledge/service. So when organizations ask for service in the name of diversity, but don’t attach any resources, that is a big red flag about their actual valuation of the importance of the mission. Here are three reasons why it’s a bad practice:

1. Just being a member of (or being interested in advancing) an underrepresented group doesn’t necessarily give one the right background to provide diversity training/services

In a June 2020 story, this Washington Post article noted that “Tech companies are asking their black employee groups to fix Silicon Valley’s race problem — often for free.” Yet, these employees found they could expend large amounts of time and energy, at a significant cost to their personal lives, and it still doesn’t move the needle on the systemic problems of their companies. Some even said their participation cost them career opportunities.

Likely a large part of the reason is that the company’s biases are built into their core systems. In addition, there are limited rigorous studies about what actually works when it comes to changing attitudes. A 2009 literature review by Elizabeth Levy Paluck and Donald P. Green in the Annual Review of Psychology concludes about prejudice reduction training:

“Notwithstanding the enormous literature on prejudice, psychologists are a long way from demonstrating the most effective ways to reduce prejudice.”

People who are educated for other roles such as computer engineering, or teaching middle school math, cannot reasonably be expected to fix their organization’s longstanding diversity problems. Especially when that time-consuming role carries no extra compensation. In fact, unless supervisors attach a high value to it, this mission may actually end up hurting their careers. They may pour time and personal energy into a mission that yields neither increased compensation nor promotions.

2. One way that has been proven to reduce bias, which is to assign people to diverse groups and give them meaningful control over their work, is the prerogative of managers

It turns out that one of the few approaches to decreasing bias that has been scientifically validated is one that is within the control of managers, not the rank and file employees who are often asked to volunteer to improve diversity. That approach is simply to create diverse teams with genuine responsibility. It turns out that people quickly start to identify with their teams. In a remarkable study using brain imaging that was published in 2008 in the journal Psychological Science, Jay J. Van Bavel et al concluded that:

“In-group biases in neural processing occurred within minutes of team assignment…and independently of preexisting attitudes, stereotypes, or familiarity.”

In other words, diverse group members demonstrated brain activity consistent with connecting with other members of their group very shortly after being put together. This bias in favor of fellow group members occurred IN SPITE OF preexisting attitudes/stereotypes.

3. Asking individual employees to correct institutional inequities obscures the difference between personal and systemic bias

Many people still confuse individual bias/animus with systemic/institutional bias. They say “but I’m always nice to our employees of (insert name of marginalized group here).” Whether true or not, that does little to change structures that have favored European American men for centuries. For example, a real estate agent could be scrupulously fair and ethical in 2020, but that does not fix the loss of generational wealth that occurred when African American veterans were largely denied the opportunity to use the GI Bill to purchase suburban homes after WW II. More recently, a three year undercover study by Newsday of the Long Island Real Estate market revealed discrimination that leads to the persistent residential housing segregation that is still evident today.

In other words, systemic problems require systemic solutions. So don’t expect that having your new associate plan a luncheon, or serve on an HR committee, will fix your organization’s deep-rooted problems. That will require self-study and meaningful change. That change must include compensation for the time you ask your employees to spend improving your organization’s culture around diversity.

Van Bavel, Jay J., et al. “The Neural Substrates of In-Group Bias: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Investigation.” Psychological Science, vol. 19, no. 11, 2008, pp. 1131–1139. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40064900. Accessed 8 July 2020.

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.

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