Why annual diversity training isn't enough to combat racism

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As companies grapple with how to address issues of diversity and bias in the workplace, diversity training should be the first — but not only — step in affecting real change.

“Any step is a step in the right direction, but it can't begin and end with doing a one time diversity training and saying, OK, we did it, we all understand, and now everything's better,” says Denise Dennis, a leadership coach and trainer. “That has to be the start of the conversation and the start of the work.”

Since the beginning of June, protests around racial inequality have been roiling the nation, in response to continued police killings and brutality against African Americans. The protests have exposed deep-seated issues around race and representation in the workplace, and how to best address these topics within an organization.

See also: What employers can do to support black employees right now

“Most employers are very interested in building more respectful, more inclusive, more cooperative relationships with all of their employees, but they don't have the skill set to do so,” says Catherine Popowits, founder of Diversity Training and Consulting, a workplace training firm. “But employees are saying, ‘What are we doing about this? How are we responding?’ And senior leadership is feeling held accountable.”

Of companies with more than 1,000 employees, 98% offer diversity training and initiatives, and 67% of employees say diversity is an important factor when considering an employer, according to Glassdoor.

However, these attitudes have previously done little to move the needle. At the management level, 61% of executives are white men, and African Americans make up just 12% of the workforce, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just this week, Marilyn Booker, the global head of diversity at Morgan Stanley, filed a lawsuit alleging the bank discriminated against her and other African American women at the firm and did nothing to address racial bias.

See also: Morgan Stanley denies systemic bias claim by ex-diversity chief

“It's a system problem, not a people problem, so if you're not going to do anything to change the system, then this is lip service,” Dennis says. “It's so crucial for the decision makers to recognize the importance of not just diversity, but inclusion in the organization and the role of unconscious bias.”

Catherine Popowits, founder of Diversity Training and Consulting

Management especially can play a large role in ensuring a company actually changes its practices and policies, Popowits says. But that requires a longer dedication to training and coaching that employers are not always interested in, she says.

“We go into many places that have been focusing on creating a culture that does include relatively frank discussions about race and other topics,” she says. “But many organizations don't understand that this is really making a culture change and that changing of culture requires sustained intentional action.”

When companies bring in a diversity trainer, some assume they can check off items on a list regarding their training initiatives, Dennis says. But once employees start talking about race and inclusion, deeper issues within the organization are often exposed.

“Participants often bring up things that happen and management doesn’t really recognize the problem,” she says. “In those instances, me coming in and talking to them one time might satisfy a workplace requirement, but nothing is changing if you don’t change the systems that cause problems in the first place.”

Companies must be engaged in a much longer process of taking what they learn in a diversity training program and applying it to their practices at work, Popowits says. She often tries to highlight the benefits to a company’s bottom line as a good incentive to tackle deeply ingrained habits.

Denise Dennis, a leadership coach and trainer.

“The companies that have very extensive diversity programs, they do it because they understand that it's good for their business,” she says. Companies with diverse hiring practices report higher engagement and retention among employees, and a study by McKinsey found companies with diverse executive boards reported 53% higher returns on equity than those with a less diverse board.

While diversity training programs serve as the gateway to addressing the topic, additional management training and one-on-one coaching can help make an impact on a company’s culture and future strategies, Dennis says.

“A full-day training is more about raising awareness and giving people options for how to interact in certain situations. But if there’s no follow-up training, there won’t be behavioral change,” she says. “It can start with diversity and inclusion and then move on to strategic planning, to put actionable plans in pace to create change within the organization.”

Employers need to address an entire range of policies, from how and where they recruit from, to the way they interview people, Popowits says. Once the employees are through the door, it’s now about creating “collaborative relationships with employees that are very different from them,” she says. “Managers need to learn a set of skills and then that set of skills has to be built into the system.”

Popowits hopes companies see these current events as the momentum they need to make meaningful changes.

“What I hope is that just as there have been sustained protests in the street, that there will be sustained requests on the part of employees to intentionally create welcoming and inclusive workplaces,” she says. “This is an area where senior leaders are responsive — it’s the employees’ continued requests that will keep this going.”

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