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Companies have been trying (and failing at) diversity training for 50 years

Unconscious bias training is part of the effort many organizations made in 2020 but the practice is nothing new. Here, a brief history of the practice and evolution of diversity training.

Companies have been trying (and failing at) diversity training for 50 years
[Photo: Sloop Communications/iStock]
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Nearly two years to the day after Starbucks shut down every single one of its 8,000 U.S. stores to give 175,000 employees a short course in racial-bias training in 2018, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked a national wave of protests against racial injustice.

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In its wake there was an outpouring of support in the form of corporate declarations from Apple’s Tim Cook tweeting that “justice is how we heal,” to the proliferation of Black Lives Matter social media posts. Some critics dismissed the statements as “performative allyship,” but many companies did start to make changes within their workforce in an effort to be antiracist and support their employees who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).

Amber Cabral, a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultant and founder of her own firm Cabral Co, observes that companies that have already invested significantly in these initiatives will move away from formalized training, and towards more behavior and results-driven actions.

In an op-ed for Fast Company, Cabral wrote:

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“We’ll begin to see inclusivity showing up in the workplace in more impactful ways, for example, on performance appraisals tied to bonuses and compensation. Look for diversity and inclusion numbers to show up on annual reports that detail company spending and donation reports that tell the story of each company’s commitment to social responsibility.”

However, the concept of unconscious bias training is still part of the foundational effort many organizations made in 2020. They began by appointing DEI practitioners to lead the charge. Hiring for all levels of diversity, equity, and inclusion professionals increased more than 90% over last year, according to LinkedIn data.

Despite the recent surge in interest, unconscious bias and diversity training dates back to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Here’s a brief timeline of what got us to the diversity and inclusion initiatives we have in the workplace today.

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In this week’s bonus episode of The New Way We Work, we take a look at the history of diversity training.

The legislative prompt

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark civil rights and labor law in the United States that made discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin illegal for employers with more than 15 employees to discriminate in hiring, termination, promotion, compensation, job training, or any other term, condition, or privilege of employment.

Supplements to the law prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, age, and disability. Sexual harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation are both also now illegal under Title VII.

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A number of discrimination suits were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. If the EEOC or state agencies found “probable cause” for discrimination, one thing they’d often require was that the organization train all employees in anti-discriminatory behavior.

Companies take action

Leadership watching these filings and court-mandated training tried to be proactive to avoid expensive lawsuits and the potential for negative publicity that would accompany a ruling, so they took it on themselves to train managers and employees.

According to a paper on the history of diversity training by Rohini Anand and Mary-Frances Winters, most training at this time was “primarily the imparting of knowledge with recitations on the law and company policies, a litany of dos and don’ts, and maybe a couple of case studies for the participants to ponder.” They say that those sessions varied from one hour to a full day, and it could often be a one-and-done event. “Many still require brief periodic refreshers of company policies and signatures from every employee to acknowledge that they had read and understood the policies and the consequences of noncompliance,” they add.

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The Reagan era changes focus

After the initial period that saw a significant uptick in racial and gender diversity in the workplace, things stalled out in the early 1980s. This came alongside less focus on compliance at the hands of President Ronald Reagan’s deregulation policies, which contended that “intensive, fine-grained regulation of business led firms to opt out of compliance altogether. Goals, such as . . . reduced discrimination would be elusive under intense regulation.”

What’s more, Reagan appointed Clarence Thomas to lead the EEOC, and Thomas was not a fan of agreements that included goals and timetables for increasing representation of underrepresented groups, but rather allowed employers to have more leeway. The result was less of a push to diversify, and training became a line item to reduce as part of cost-cutting efforts in an era when offshore competition heated up.

At this point, those companies that continued to push diversity training shifted their strategy, Winters and Anand write. They aimed to provide content that would help women and people of color assimilate into existing corporate cultures, Winters and Anand say, “based on the assumption that these new corporate entrants were less prepared because they had not yet developed the necessary managerial skills to be effective managers.”

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Workforce 2000

In 1987, a book called Workforce 2000 came out, and among its predictions was that our future labor force would include more women and underrepresented minorities. As such, many experts use this publication as the impetus for creating and making a business case for the diversity training industry.

The late Roosevelt Thomas Jr., former executive director of the American Institute for Managing Diversity, at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, upended the perceptions that affirmative action and compliance training could solve diversity problems at homogenous companies in an article for Harvard Business Review in 1990. In it, he suggested a 10-point plan for shifting corporate culture to be more inclusive, above and beyond what a single diversity training could achieve. What’s more, he tied it to business success. He wrote:

There is a simple test to help you spot the diversity programs that are going to eat up enormous quantities of time and effort. Surprisingly, perhaps, it is the same test you might use to identify the programs and policies that created your problem in the first place. The test consists of one question: Does this program, policy, or principle give special consideration to one group? Will it contribute to everyone’s success, or will it only produce an advantage for blacks or whites or women or men? Is it designed for them as opposed to us? Whenever the answer is yes, you’re not yet on the road to managing diversity.

Becoming culturally sensitive

After Roosevelt’s paradigm became more widely known in the 1990s, companies embarked on training that ranged from social justice to awareness and appreciation of differences, and even work-life balance, sexual orientation, age, and disabilities. Winters and Anand write that there was a backlash from white men, which led to a historic Supreme Court case of Allan Bakke who alleged he was twice denied admission for medical school because of “reverse discrimination.” (He was granted admission, but the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action.)

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It also led to including the controversial “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes” exercise in companies’ unconscious bias training. It was originally conceived by Jane Elliot, an Iowa public school teacher, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In it, students were grouped by the color of their eyes and told that the blue-eyed group was superior and should get better treatment. The result was better performance from those with blue eyes.

Although this remains a powerful exercise, ultimately, they write, diversity training became a “check-off-the-box item evaluated not by its effectiveness, but rather by the number of people who were trained.”

Beyond 2000

Training continued to evolve in the new millennium. Anand and Winters write that contemporary approaches position diversity as a competency. “The assumption is no longer that only certain groups need training (e.g., white men or minorities), but rather that all employees need to be more cross-culturally competent in an increasingly global world,” they write. “It is just as important for an African-American male to learn more about his Chinese coworker or vice versa.”

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Unfortunately, given the continued underrepresentation of women and minorities in most businesses as well as the continued harassment and discrimination of underrepresented groups, diversity training and inclusion initiatives still have a place in our corporate culture today.

To hear more, you can listen and subscribe to The New Way We Work on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, RadioPublic, or wherever you get your podcasts.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a staff editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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