Of late, I have come across quite a few posts on social media advertising or advocating for anti-racism and diversity training. While I understand it is very much the need of the hour, most of these ‘training sessions’ do have one fundamental flaw. It is a flaw that I have witnessed repeat itself over and over in my 30 years of industry experience. And, more worryingly, a flaw that I am seeing not being addressed at all in the training sessions being advertised.

Training is an expensive proposition for any organization. It takes people away from their jobs and costs the company money to hire competent and experienced trainers. While many company leaders see this as an expense, it is a necessary expense in so far as coming to terms with the changing landscape of diversity and racial awareness.

Unfortunately, having been in this field for over three decades, I can say with a great deal of confidence, that a lot of diversity and anti-racism training yields little post-training benefit. I’ve found that it usually leaves a lot of the program’s success up to an individual’s capability to implement what they’ve learned. They can either decide to act on what they have learned or ignore it entirely as soon as the training is over.

A prime reason for this failure is that the training is not linked to a set of goals that are part of doing business differently. Too often, I see corporations offer diversity training as a way to look to the outside world that they are doing something. However, they have no commitment behind it to make changes in hiring practices, put in place a transparent and fair promotion system, a, or give BIPOC people opportunities to demonstrate their high visibility positions with a chance to demonstrate their contribution to the company.  There is simply no motivation to break up the ‘old boys’ network’. Their goal, it would seem, is to appear to be cutting edge, and ‘with it’, but continue to operate the way they always have.

When an organization is conducting diversity training, the question worth asking is this:  what do you expect will be different when the training is concluded? If the answer is along the lines of ‘people will treat each other better, more fairly,’ or other unquantifiable aspirations, then it’s a safe bet to assume that nothing will change. An example of a specific goal to be accomplished by the training is: ‘we want all racial groups to experience roughly the same level of career advancement as white men experience’. Another example could be that all employees’ turnover levels, regardless of ethnicity and color, will be statistically equal. Both of these goals have specificity inbuilt, outcomes that are different from the status quo.

With these goals in place, the training can then address the skills and information gaps that people will need to achieve them. Additionally, the reward system has to be tailored to clarify that those who achieve these goals will be rewarded in substantially different measures than those who fail. In turn, this requires an accountability system that will measure who uses the skills and who achieves the targeted outcome.

The ONLY way for training to be effective is for it to be coupled with a structure that holds the trainees responsible for using what they have learned. This includes:

  1. Meetings before the training with immediate supervisors where trainees are informed that they will be expected to demonstrate specific skills (which will be taught in the training session) once they have completed the training.

  2. They are told how many weeks after the training they have to demonstrate a specific level of those skills.

  3. They are told how failure to perform those skills at the specified level will result in negative ratings in their annual performance review.

To be effective, the awareness has to be coupled with skills like those where a person notes the racial dynamics that can be observed.  Tracking™ is one such essential skill.  It is the skill of be able  to notice how race (or any other form of difference)  is playing out in the moment.  Tracking consists of noticing what is observable without adding any interpretation or judgement – you only say what is observable.  You cannot notice what someone is feeling.  That is an interpretation.  You can notice that they look down, their arms are folded or they say nothing.  Things like “intense,” scowl, impatient, etc. are all interpretations.

In order to track, one needs to pay attention to the following:

  • Who, by race, speaks first?

  • Whose ideas received the most favorable reception.

  • What is the race of those in the meeting, in the restaurant, at the presentation?

  • Who, by race, gets interrupted before they finish speaking?

  • Who, by race, is not present when critical decisions are made?

  • Who, by race, is over-represented among the top management positions?

  • Who, by race, get promoted quickest among the racial groups that work in that organization?

  • Who, by race, gets the highest proportion of top ratings in performance appraisals?

  • Who, by race, gets hired with the fewest interviews?

  • Who, by race, has the highest rate of terminations?

Here are some ‘tracks’ that might occur in response to the questions listed above:

  • A white man spoke first.

  • In three of the five times a white man spoke initially, subsequent speakers referred to what they said.  This was not the case when the  Latinx woman spoke or when the 2 blacks spoke.

  • There were 3 black men, 2 black women, 2 Latinx women, 1 Asian man, 4 white women and 5 white men at the meeting.

  • 1 white woman was interrupted before she finished speaking; 5 of the 8 BIPOC speakers were interrupted

  • There were no indigenous people present, nor any Asian women or Latinx men present.

  • Whites comprise 80% of the top management, and 33% of the entire workforce.

I mention this specific skill of Tracking,™ in order to distinguish between things like ‘be more aware’ and ‘be fair.’ These are intentions.  Skills like Tracking™ enable anyone to verify whether there was parity in the way people from different racial groups were treated. Supervisors can ask anyone they manage to comment on a meeting and determine whether they tracked what they noticed and what they did not notice.  They can also determine how many things the person tracked/noticed about the way race manifested itself as a difference in the interactions that took place at a meeting, event, social outing.  It can also be used to examine how people of different races are depicted in corporate literature.  Who is featured in photos? In what roles is each racial group depicted   (manager, front line worker, professional)? To what extent are the depictions of each race consistent with how that race shows up in the company in terms of roles and level?

There are other skills which I could enumerate, but my point is not to discuss all the skills.  I want to draw a distinction between training that provides people with concrete skills rather than settle for the assumption that they will use their greater awareness to good effect.  Those organizations that wish to change the work culture so that BIPOC employees experience the same level of success as white do, will need to make sure that any and all training (1) targets specific skills and (2) takes place within a structure that will measure and reward each trainee according to how well she or he employs those skills back on the job.

* Tracking™ by Elsie Y. Cross Associates, 1990

Michael Burkart

Giridhar Sridharan