Why DE&I trainings tend to fail

Diversity and inclusion cannot be achieved overnight. A culture has to be developed, sustained and reinforced


Three years ago, at one of the Starbucks joints in the US, an employee denied a Black man access to the bathroom unless he bought something from the counter. A lawsuit was filed and the matter generated a bit of heat in the global media. Post this incident, the Company suddenly woke up to the need for diversity training sessions for its workforce, to remove racial bias. This led to Starbucks closing 8000 of its retail stores for good and putting 1,75,000 employees through diversity training and anti-bias lessons.

It has been widely noticed that unless there is a big controversy or a major incident related to racial or gender bias at the workplace, organisation do not take any interest or often fail to take any action in this area. Do these training sessions really help? If they do, why is there a continuous rise in racial lawsuits globally?

Familiarising new hires with the culture of the organisation, especially the stand on gender or racial bias, is a part of the onboarding process of multinationals worldwide. Fancy powerpoint slides form an essential part of the ‘moral gyaan’ imparted at orientation sessions. For many companies, that is usually it, as far as their DE&I agenda is concerned. Some may throw in a couple of sessions on D&I for the sake of it.

“Many a time, these value-building and diversity-training sessions end up being mere branding stunts at companies”

Ravi Mishra, SVP-HR, advanced material businesses, Aditya Birla Group

Researches conducted over the years suggest that such diversity trainings have either no or negligible impact on people at the workplace. A recent study by scholars and professors of the University of Pennsylvania found that diversity trainings have no effect on the behavioural change of an individual. Post completion of diversity training programmes on gender diversity, where more than 3000 employees of a company participated, the measurement of the impact of the training was studied in all the participants for a period of 20 weeks. The results were disappointing. There was no change in the outlook or behaviour of men — who more often dominate the workplace — in their sensitivity towards women employees at the workplace. In one of the exercises, where all the participants were asked to nominate five people with whom they would want to spend some time for inclusivity purposes, the responses showed no change in the behaviour of men.

At Starbucks too, there seems to have been little impact of diversity training. This year, a Black employee filed a lawsuit against the Company for racial discrimination at the workplace and alleged receiving little support from his managers and subordinates.

Ravi Mishra, SVP-HR, advanced material businesses, Aditya Birla Group, shares with HRKatha that in his previous stints, he recalls how firms spent cores of rupees to train employees on diversity and inclusion and to sensitise them towards related issues, without achieving any noticeable impact.

As per a Mckinsey report, today DE&I training industry is minting $8 billion every year.

Why do DE&I trainings fail?

The failure or success of DE&I trainings is dependent on the trainers to a large extent. Each individual lives with some sort of bias. Therefore, if those conducting the training themselves are biased, how can the participants be expected to benefit from the sessions? “In many firms, those who talk about morals are themselves hypocrites,” points out Mishra. In such cases, more often than not a DE&I or a sensitising activity would backfire. In fact, the sessions may even make the participants more resilient to removing their bias or may even further trigger it.

“DE&I calls for continuous effort and a multi-disciplinary approach to see success”

Saba Adil, chief people officer, Raheja QBE

Another reason for the failure of DE&I programmes is a ‘Tick in the box activity’ attitude. Once the activity is over, everyone forgets about it. There is no measurement of impact and no effort to follow up or recall. Research says that human beings can only retain 20 per cent of their learning the next day if they do not put that knowledge into practice.

“DE&I calls for continuous effort and a multi-disciplinary approach to see success,” points out Saba Adil, chief people officer, Raheja QBE.

“Many a time, these value-building and diversity-training sessions end up being mere branding stunts at companies,” adds Mishra.

Diversity and inclusion in the workforce can only be ensured through prolonged, continuous and genuine efforts in that direction. After all, changing someone’s behaviour is difficult and takes time.

“If we invest in engaging genuine trainers and real-time role models who exemplify truly inclusive behaviour, we can make 60 per cent of the sensitising efforts more impactful and gain results,” asserts Mishra.

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