Posted on December 22, 2020

The Unfinished Business of Office Diversity Training

Krithika Varagur, Wall Street Journal, December 20, 2020

For a few weeks last June and July, Seyi Fabode’s phone rang off the hook.

“I was constantly roped into calls with 20 other white founders as the ‘Black founder’ to talk about my experience,” says Mr. Fabode, an entrepreneur in Austin, Texas, and co-founder of Varuna, which provides software and sensors for water utilities. He was happy to recommend talented Black job candidates when asked.

“But as I followed up with those same people months later, asking, ‘Did you make that hire?,’ in almost every single instance, they say, ‘Oh, it’s been so busy…’ Meaning, in a word, no.”

Offices across the country responded to this summer’s racial-justice protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day with an unprecedented wave of diversity and antiracism training. Half a year later, workers of color are taking stock of the results.

It’s a mixed bag. It’s clear by now that corporate diversity efforts require substantial follow-up, both in terms of interpersonal dynamics and in translating rhetoric into concrete policies. Not all workplaces are up to the challenge.

Several consultants in the diversity, equity and inclusion field say that summer 2020 was the busiest period of their careers to date.

“This year has been a roller coaster,” says Lily Zheng, a diversity consultant based in San Jose, Calif. When Covid-19 first hit in the spring, her industry was ravaged by layoffs. Then, just a few months later, the Floyd protests prompted a sharp reversal. “The demand far exceeded the supply,” she says. “And it’s just been upward from there.”

The scramble to meet this demand led to a number of poorly thought-out initiatives, says Farzana Nayani, a diversity consultant based in Los Angeles. “There are a lot of upstarts in this field,” she says, who may not plan for the emotional impact of their work on participants, who must remain co-workers long after undergoing training.

She notes that unconscious bias training, one popular program designed to reveal workers’ prejudices, can backfire and actually enhance stereotypes if it doesn’t leave people with tools to manage or eliminate those biases. “These sessions can bring up a lot of uncomfortable emotions, like sadness, anger, frustration…shame and guilt,” she says. “Can they change office relationships? Absolutely.”

Anthony Turner, a Black clinical social worker in Brooklyn Park, Minn., says multiple white colleagues approached him last summer, after the public high school where he worked held a mandatory diversity workshop. “There were these liberal white women coming up to me and crying, asking me for reassurance, and I end up comforting them,” he says. “It was a very uncomfortable experience.”

Mr. Fabode, in Austin, says his conversations last summer were taxing, too. “It was emotionally draining, and eye-opening—in a bad way. Many folks on these calls, who had all recently undergone some kind of unconscious bias or diversity training, would offer up really patronizing examples of how they’ve helped Black employees.”


{snip} A study of online diversity training published in the journal PNAS in 2019 concluded that one-off training sessions are “unlikely to be stand-alone solutions for promoting equality in the workplace.” {snip}