June 05, 2019

Corporations like Sephora continue to hope diversity training will make a difference. Here’s what they should do instead.

This morning, Sephora closed its stores to customers to host an inclusivity workshop. The one-hour training for their 16,000 employees is part of a new “We Belong to Something Beautiful” initiative.

While Sephora maintains the campaign and training have been in the works for six months, many news outlets have been quick to point out that the announcement comes less than two months after musician SZA tweeted about her experience being racially profiled in a Sephora store. Whether or not the incidents are related, it’s hard not to try and connect the dots.

History repeats itself.

If this whole story feels familiar to you, you’re probably thinking of Starbucks. The coffee chain closed its locations for a half-day racial bias training in 2018. It was a direct response to an incident in which two black men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, were arrested at a Philadelphia store after asking to use the restroom.

While the move was lauded by some as an example of a corporation taking swift action to correct its shortcomings, others saw it as a cynical PR move that failed to address the real problem. Even among employees in attendance, opinions were mixed. One person’s “giant message” of hope is another’s “waste of four hours.”

Will these trainings make a difference?

Starbucks’ and Sephora’s perspectives are understandable: in reaction to headline-making incidents, they each rushed to a public gesture of goodwill. (And these gestures go beyond the symbolic: it’s been reported that Starbucks lost $12 million in business from its half-day closure.)

But the other perspective, that the trainings won’t make any real difference to the people hurt by everyday acts of bias, is supported by research.

An April 2019 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds new light on when diversity trainings work—and when they don’t.

The study examined gender bias and racial bias trainings to make a few conclusions about the effectiveness of diversity and inclusion training:

  • One short program isn’t enough. A brief and isolated training—one that takes place over a few hours or days, and isn’t connected to any other initiatives—won’t effect lasting behavior change.
  • Employees’ pre-existing attitudes matter. The study found that employees who aren’t already bought into the importance of diversity—a group in which white men significantly over-index—are not likely to change their minds after a training program. Reaching people who have the most power to create institutional change is vital.
  • There are encouraging signals. There was some significant behavior change from the training in the study. It was largely driven by women and people of color, who displayed more inclusive and supportive behaviors toward each other after going through a diversity training.

Here’s the real problem—and the real solution.

No matter how good their intentions, companies that reactively implement diversity training are often creating a perfect storm for a lacking inclusion program. In addition to the points highlighted by the PNAS study, research has found that mandatory trainings, and trainings that feel punitive, often lead to backlash from employees.

“Diversity training as a knee jerk reaction” is a symptom of the larger issue—companies that take a one-size-fits-all approach to cultivating inclusivity and belonging likely won’t get the results they want or reach the people who need the most intervention.

A well-executed training must exist as part of a larger, organization-wide effort. Employees benefit most from interventions they can engage with over a longer period, in the moments they need them most. (See our list of ten actionable steps toward diversity, equity, and inclusion here.)

Further, people need to be ready to internalize information that challenges their worldview. The conditions for that readiness can only ever exist in a safe and healthy workplace, where open and honest conversation is the norm. Introducing diversity training into a company where basic psychological safety needs aren’t being met can foster resentment.

At Bravely, we often help HR leaders understand how coaching can help support their existing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives by teaching employees how to approach this dialogue.

None of this is to say that diversity education isn’t important, or simply doesn’t work. It is important, and it can work. We encourage all companies—not just those facing a bias crisis—to consider looking past short-term solutions, and instead look to what will create a work environment where everyone can feel welcome and safe.

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