January 9, 2008 by Shawn Smith
When it comes to diversity training, I know whereof I speak. Having been subjected to 40 weeks worth during psychologist school – and that’s just for starters – I should be as “culturally competent” as they come. If aliens ever visit Earth I should be sent to greet them.
Diversity training is an eight billion dollar industry that provides our economy with much needed silos full of moist, warm air. At least, that is the conclusion (I’m paraphrasing) of one author who looked beyond the feel-good platitudes of the industry and examined actual economic outcomes.
According to the article in Workforce, “the industry has claimed that diversity programs yield higher performance and greater productivity, but the evidence offered is largely anecdotal or based on limited data collected through questionable methods” (Hansen, 2003).
That the industry has few, if any, demonstrable positive outcomes may be due to an utter lack of accountability and standards. According to one CEO quoted in the Hansen article, “some companies have completed limited studies at a divisional level, but there are no formal reports with valid and scientifically determined numbers.”
Unaccountability comes with a price. Just ask the city government in my hometown of Denver, where a row over a diversity training video has degenerated into charges of racism, bullying, and retribution. You might assume that a backward-thinking employee is on the receiving end of those charges, but we do things differently around here: it is the trainers who are accused of precisely the behavior that diversity training is meant to prevent.
Laughing Matters – Think About It
In an industry without standards, this type of soap-opera fiasco is inevitable.
The troubles began for Denver’s Career Services Authority (CSA) when they showed a training film to Dennis Supple, a city maintenance worker. The video, produced by the City of Denver, was meant to teach city employees to avoid off-color jokes. In the video Laughing Matters – Think About It (what a wonderfully condescending title) a white male actor portrayed a blue-collar worker as the only person who told racist, sexist, and other distasteful jokes. Supple took offense at the video and charged the city with anti-Anglo bias by portraying white males in a stereotypical fashion. “Diversity, to me, doesn’t mean hammer the white guy,” Supple told the Rocky Mountain News (Chacon, 2007).
When Mr. Supple informed the CSA that the video might be offensive to a segment of the population, the CSA was grateful. They immediately pulled it from their training program and commended Mr. Supple for his clarity of thought regarding tolerance. They also good-naturedly acknowledged the irony of a diversity video that relies on a stereotype to make its point. There were hugs all around followed by a solemn rendition of Kumbaya.
Ha Ha! Just kidding! The CSA told Supple to suck it up. They would continue to use the video until 2008 or 2009, after which Mr. Supple’s input “would certainly be taken into consideration for the next video” (Chacon, 2007). I don’t speak bureaucratese, but I think that translates loosely to “get bent.”
That’s when things got ugly.
Supple took his case to Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown, who turned Supple’s complaint into a national news story. It was only under the pressure of media attention that the CSA chose to pull the video – but not before exacting a pound of flesh from Supple, according to Councilman Brown.
Brown is wondering whether the CSA leaked Supple’s confidential personnel file to local media in an act of retribution. In a November 11th letter to the director of the CSA, Brown highlighted a series of suspicious emails and phone calls between the CSA’s spokesperson and members of the media who broke the news of Supple’s previous firing from the city (Brown, 2007).
Such ugliness. As a College Student Journal article pointed out, “diversity training programs were designed to better the relationship among people who work together. However, despite the best intentions, some diversity training programs produce the opposite effect.” 1
No kidding. Supple is now considering mortgaging his house to fund a civil rights lawsuit against the city. Stay tuned for more developments in this exciting, if shameful, episode of diversity training.
Lack of Standards
I spoke with Councilman Brown on Independent Thinking, where he reported that the City of Denver spends upwards of $250,000 annually on diversity training. That does not include the cost of lost productivity among those employees who are “encouraged” to attend the two-day training.
What the City gets in return for its investment (aside from lawsuits) is unclear, so I sent a polite email to the Chair of the Diversity Committee hoping for clarification on specific goals, standards, and evaluation practices. In particular, I asked about the video. What specific, measurable problem was it meant to address, what standards were used in the curriculum development, and how did the committee plan to evaluate its effectiveness?
That was three weeks ago. Having received no response, I turned to the committee’s website, where I chanced upon a report called City And County Of Denver Diversity/Inclusion Plan 2007. Aha! Standards! Goals! Measurable outcomes! A psychology geek’s dream!
Well, not quite. This is the committee’s stated objective:
“Develop Citywide Diversity Approach To Enhance Awareness And Cultural Competency.”
In the poem Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll demonstrated that even nonsensical words can tell a story. The committee’s objective statement offers an intriguing counterpoint: even though it is made of genuine words, this is perhaps the most meaningless phrase I have ever read. It contains not a single measurable idea. (How do you quantify “enhancement,” for example?)
Fortunately, the report listed the committee’s eight specific goals, including:
- Maintain Citywide Diversity Advisory Committee,
- Coordinate Diversity/Inclusion Education and Training Throughout the City and County of Denver, and
- Maintaining Internal And External Networks In The Diversity Community.
It seems that the Diversity Advisory Committee’s primary mission is to ensure continued funding of the Diversity Advisory Committee.
There is one more goal – the last item in the report – that is worth mentioning:
- Set Benchmarks for Review of Successes Over Time.
At first glance, this might appear to describe the committee’s intent to evaluate its own effectiveness. It does not. This describes nothing more than a vague intent to set the goal of reviewing its successes (which will surely exclude the Laughing Matters fiasco).
Unless they are willing to look at both success and failures, and learn from them, there is no telling what outcomes the committee will produce. Turning a blind eye to the true effects of diversity training is nothing new in the industry.
Consider, for example, the Brown-Eye Blue-Eye Experience.
Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue
Ohio schoolteacher Jane Elliott created the Brown-Eye Blue-Eye Experience in 1968. After the death of Martin Luther King Jr., she divided her class of fifth graders into two groups according to eye color. She gave the brown-eyed children special treatment and recognition while jeering the blue-eyed children and teaching the class that they were inferior. Lo and behold, the brown-eyed children began to treat the blue-eyed kids poorly.
Despite the fact that this was a rotten thing to do to the children – especially without consent – her discovery (whatever it was) was hailed in a burgeoning community of diversity trainers as some sort of breakthrough in awareness building, or resistance surfacing, or whatever. The exercise found its way into classrooms and boardrooms throughout the country over the next three decades. Elliott has made a career of it.
It wasn’t until 2003 that someone decided to find out what, if anything, the exercise accomplished. That’s right – diversity trainers used the exercise for 35 years before anyone bothered to evaluate it.
The lead investigator, herself possessing a long diversity training resume (and allowing Jane Elliot to interfere with the evaluation against her better judgment) decided that the exercise is a success because, in part, it evoked guilt and self-directed anger among white participants who were singled out for hours of maltreatment, insults, and deprivation:
“Negative emotions experienced by White individuals as a result of confronting racism within themselves and in their society can motivate these individuals to work toward a less prejudiced self and society.”
That’s one of several theoretical justifications discussed by the authors; there were other high-minded assertions. But different, more basic questions leapt to my mind: What is the purpose of the exercise? What is the mechanism by which it achieves its goal? Is it necessary to insult people in the name of diversity and tolerance?
One could ask similar questions regarding the CSA’s training video. (One would not get many answers.) To the great majority of diversity trainers, I suspect, those questions do not matter. What matters is the survival of their industry.
At least, that appears to be the general disposition of an industry that has allowed for decades of unquestioned methods – an industry that proudly produced Denver’s now famous diversity training video.
Somewhere, Over the Rainbow…
I’m an optimistic person. I think there is hope for the diversity industry. Racism is thriving and vicious in some quarters, and a measured approach to the study of diversity might make the world a nicer place. (See? I’m capable of generalizations and platitudes, too.) And, as Councilman Brown pointed out to me, diversity training has a place in the City of Denver if for no other reason than to provide good customer service to the taxpayer.
But before the diversity industry can leave a positive mark in the world, it must be willing to embrace concrete goals, empirical standards, and stringent evaluation practices. That’s how the rest of us manage to keep our jobs. Personally, I would not have it any other way because I am proud of the work that I do. If the diversity industry is proud of their product, then they should not hesitate to prove their worth.
Until the industry takes that challenge, I predict that we will hear increasingly more about shoddy methods and embarrassing shenanigans. Dennis Supple has launched a pebble down a very rocky slope.
1. This College Student Journal article offers advice to diversity trainers who encounter “resistant” participants. Most programs, the authors explain, “focus on making changes in the awareness and the attitudes of the participants.” Why on Earth would anyone resist enlightenment? It’s simple, say the authors: “People will resist what others want them to think or feel for one of two basic reasons; either the demand is not in their best self-interest, or the demand is experienced as an attack on their self-image.”
Those are not the only reasons people “resist” the opinions of others. What a ridiculous assertion. There is at least one more explanation that the authors overlooked: that diversity curricula, being mostly devoid of empirical research, makes little sense to those who are unswayed by the emotional appeals that substitute for reason and data in the diversity industry. Ironically, the industry of tolerance has little room for those who hold differing opinions or demand empirical evidence. back
Brown, C. (2007). Personal communication.
Chacon, D.J. (2007). Diversity video no laughing matter. Rocky Mountain News, November 23. Downloaded on January 7, 2007 from:http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2007/nov/23/
Hansen, F. (2003). Diversity’s business case doesn’t add up. Workforce, 82(4), 28-32.
Karp, H. B.; Sammour, Hael Y. (2000). Workforce diversity: Choices in diversity training programs & dealing with resistance to diversity. College Student Journal, 34(3). 451-458.
Steward, T., LaDuke, J.R., Bracht, C., Sweet, B.A.M., & Gamarel, K.E. (2003). Do the “Eyes” have it? A program evaluation of Jane Elliott’s “Blue-Eyes/Brown-Eyes” diversity training exercise. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33(9), 1898-1921.
The City And County Of Denver Diversity/Inclusion Plan 2007 was downloaded on January 07, 2007 from http://www.denvergov.org/Diversity_Initiatives/