It seems like every week we’re waking up to another company facing bad press and a public backlash due to discriminatory or biased behavior. Two weeks ago we saw Microsoft employees detail a toxic environment of sexual harassment and discrimination against women. Not too long before that Prada and Gucci both came under fire for releasing products that evoked racist imagery in fairly clear ways. Google has been facing ongoing outcries from their own employees for a number of transgressions including forced arbitration for sexual harassment and the ethics of board appointees.
Companies are increasingly being called by the public, and their own employees, to answer for their decisions and to adhere to more inclusive and ethical values. These incidents are often followed by public commitments to do better, take a long hard look at their internal culture and institute policies that will stop such things from happening in the future. Often the first action we see is some sort of diversity training, usually in the form of implicit or unconscious bias trainings (UBTs). When Starbucks closed over 8,000 stores last year for racial bias training following an incident where two Black men were wrongfully arrested in one of their Philadelphia locations, many discussed if this was really an impactful solution.
This argument on UBTs preceded the Starbucks incident and has continued since. Many believe it’s a good first step to acknowledge the fact that we as humans have implicit or unconscious biases and that such trainings can create opportunities for open dialogue across groups of people. However, there are also those who feel that such trainings are often knee-jerk, band-aid solutions that give off the impression of taking action but do not actually provide lasting impact.
Wherever you fall on this debate, there’s no denying that the market for UBT is massive. More than $8 billion is spent on diversity training per year according to McKinsey, and a recent survey of Diversity and Inclusion tech companies by Mercer and RedThread found that 43% of these companies are selling products that are trying to solve issues of unconscious bias. The growing demand for these solutions is fueled by the general feeling that employees and managers need to understand that they have unconscious biases so that they can do better and be more inclusive.
There is nothing wrong with this sentiment. It is objectively valuable to highlight the fact that we all have unconscious biases that affect our actions daily. So you do the training. Sometimes it’s a few hours, sometimes it’s a series of workshops that take place over a few days. But then what? Ask yourself a few questions:
- Has the training provided actionable and realistic insight into how to combat these hidden biases?
- Did the right people attend the workshop? And do attendees feel equipped to identify these biases before they translate into discriminatory actions?
- Do you feel confident in creating and implementing strategic plans to guide changes in behavior as a result of this training?
- Are there defined metrics of success for making your workplace more inclusive that you can rely on, with a schedule of when to measure and report to determine if it worked?
- What initiatives have you put into place to complement this training?
A lot of times the answers to the above questions are: “Ummm…well kinda…we’re working on it” or just “no”. That’s where a lot of these trainings fall short. After identifying the biases that exist, organizations have to then assess how these biases may be negatively impacting processes, policies and procedures and adjust as needed. Accountability and tracking progress is key, otherwise you’ve just spent a bunch of money for everyone in your company to sit around and listen to a presentation with no idea of what to do next. They may truly learn something and gain insight into their own biases, but then what do they change? How does it impact their job? Even worse, sometimes these trainings have the opposite of the intended effect: individuals who are made to realize their bias can experience reduced morale because now they feel bad about themselves AND don’t know what to do to correct it.
I recently spoke to a friend at a large media company that had attended such trainings in her workplace. In her words, the effects were “laughable”. She shared that she understood the intention behind it and the content was objectively good, but no one on her entire team felt that there was anything they could take from it into their daily experience at work in a meaningful way. It ended up amounting to not much more than a one-off training and no such training has happened since.
While I’m going on about how accountability, measurement, and clear actionable follow-up is key, I fully understand that this stuff is hard to track. First off, inclusion is invisible and is felt differently for different people. It’s much easier to track instances of exclusion, but that by itself isn’t necessarily giving you the whole picture. Second, there are a number of real conflicts that arise when it comes to asking employees personal questions about their experiences at work. Are you asking the right questions? Do your employees feel comfortable answering them? Is leadership okay with seeing results that they may not like? Third, how do you know what to measure? What is the best metric, or series of metrics, to understand whether your workplace is giving each and every one of your team members the experience and environment that’s best for them?
At Aleria we believe that Diversity & Inclusion needs to be a part of core strategy, deeply connected to every function of your organization and your values. The business imperative argument is old news at this point. (If you don’t think so, here’s a list of all the research and data on it.) So while a lot of companies and leaders understand that having a more inclusive and diverse culture is directly tied to business performance, they often don’t know where to start. UBT is just one of many approaches an organization can take, and there are an increasing number of companies selling a range of solutions from focusing on engagement surveys, feedback, diversifying recruiting processes, mentorship, and others. When you combine all of these options with the complexity of the human experience of inclusion, even with the best of intentions knowing where to invest your resources isn’t easy.
Aleria is working to bridge that gap by taking a much deeper look at what’s going on in your company and helping you figure out what the risks and opportunities are when it comes to D&I so that you know where to focus your efforts for the largest impact. In addition to demographics, recruitment and retention data, and other engagement metrics, we take into account unintended consequences, getting buy-in from leadership at all levels, and work with clients to take the guesswork out of D&I. Plus, we play Sims-like games as part of the process, which is always fun.
If you’d like to learn more about how we we do things at Aleria, drop us a line.