diversity training

Image by Matthew Henry

Learning From the Rescinded Diversity Training Ban

President Joe Biden held his post for only a few hours before rescinding former President Donald Trump’s executive order banning some forms of diversity and inclusion training.

The highly controversial order, executive order 13950, prohibited federal contractors from implementing training programs that promote “race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating.” It was signed as the country reeled from mounting racial tension and a pandemic that exposed severe inequalities. Ultimately, the order was met with lawsuits and blocked by a federal judge on First Amendment grounds.

In an effort to shift the federal government’s focus back to equity, President Biden revoked the ban immediately. Now, compliance professionals are taking a hard look at the goals of diversity training and affirmative action compliance. Specifically, they’re wondering how to move companies forward in light of the revocation.

How Compliance Professionals Received the Revocation

It’s easy to assume that compliance professionals embraced Biden’s rescission of Trump’s executive order. After all, more than 160 organizations—including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—called upon Trump to reconsider the order. Their reaction illustrates the danger of using unilateral government action rather than the legislative process to make major changes.

Although the intent of the executive order was fairly clear, it permitted the federal government to punish employers for “unpopular” speech in a way that was overly broad in application. This put employers in a challenging position, which is why many halted diversity and inclusion training altogether. As a result, this chilled efforts to prioritize anti-racism training at a time when diversity and inclusion messaging mattered the most.

When companies really looked at the hard numbers behind discrimination in corporate America last year, it became clear that we have a long way to go to reach a state of equality. Diversity and inclusion messages and training play a big part in that, but they only work when they bring everyone in—not when they call some people out and let exclusion and intolerance germinate.

The Forgotten Voices in Affirmative Action Compliance

Despite evidence of systemic racism in America, many Americans still resist the notions of equality and nondiscrimination. For some, these attitudes stem from a place of hatred and animosity. Others don’t see why diversity training is important because they fear these initiatives will put them at a disadvantage. On the opposite side of the spectrum, progressives sometimes lump these people into baskets and treat anyone who disagrees with their views as unsalvageable.

Too many misconceptions exist because of poorly communicated diversity and inclusion messages. Speaking down to people who question the goals of diversity training or treating them like they need to be “saved” won’t create a more inclusive workplace.

Lasting change begins with reaching out to people who do not understand or support the goals of diversity training and hearing the reasons why. 

After all, if you work to really understand why people are resistant in the first place, you can create the right messages to help them see the practical benefits of diversity and inclusion work. Leaving workers who think differently out of the conversation is not the answer.

How Revoking a Ban Became a Band-Aid

The fundamental goal of diversity training should be enlightenment, which can be emotional for those new to the idea. So if you’re going to dig deeper into social science, prepare to do some social work. If you’re teaching people to be more sensitive to others but show only insensitivity toward them, expect poor results.

Because of these realities, compliance professionals must take diversity training a little bit deeper. Right now, companies largely double down on anti-bias training and diversity and inclusion messages when there is a crisis or a public relations disaster. That’s the wrong approach. Successful programs require an understanding of skeptical people and a long-term commitment. Don’t coddle employees who struggle with the concept. But also make sure they don’t leave training sessions feeling shamed or ridiculed.

Unfortunately, many diversity training efforts fail due to skepticism or improper implementation. That’s because people react to them differently, and sometimes in unexpected ways. Still, compliance professionals should carefully examine the ban created by President Trump’s executive order, its revocation, and how to now get doubtful audiences on board.

Charting a New Course in Changing Times

As you renew complex discussions about equality and inclusion, do so with care and compassion. Here are a few ways to ensure more success in diversity training and affirmative action compliance moving forward:

1. Review your compliance and diversity training programs

Take some time to look at your communication. What message does this training send? Does it feel inclusive or exclusive? Your communication should convey the idea that everyone belongs. This requires identifying, recognizing, and confronting what “good” people experience, including the trainers. Fear is human, so keep compassion top of mind.

2. Do not alienate the other side

Both sides of the political spectrum can house inequality. The answer to discrimination and division cannot be more discrimination and division. It is hard to gain credibility if you host programs that attack one side of the political spectrum. And why go into these critical conversations knowing you’ll offend at least 47.4 percent of the population?

3. Be skeptical of trending ideas

Although it is tempting to subscribe to every “breakthrough” idea, research it before you incorporate it. Yes, people are having a lot of great conversations right now about race theory and dominant culture systems. But fixing race relations takes time, thought, and hard work. You need more than flashy concepts with a “just do this” or “just do that” prescription.

4. Support outreach statements with action

Saying your “door is open” with no meaningful action is not enough. Actively reach out to employees and provide opportunities for them to share negative feedback—and not just positive thoughts. If you provide programs without getting feedback on your messaging, you’ve failed employees. Without input from others, diversity training becomes unilateral and chilling, much like the executive order. Instead, use feedback to achieve meaningful, lasting change.

If diversity training and affirmative action compliance were easy, it would be a non-issue at most companies; however, that is not the case. If you are exploring new ways to address inequality in the workplace, communication is key. It’s time to collaborate with employees—with varying current belief systems—to address systemic racism in a way that works.