If you’ve ever been required to attend a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training, this exercise might be familiar to you. It’s called “The Privilege Walk.” What it really should be called is “Humiliating anyone who didn’t grow up in a stable home with easy access to books provided by college-educated parents.” During this exercise, you take a step forward if your answer to the question is “Yes” and backward if your answer is “No.” Easy enough, right? The exercise was part of a daylong workshop I attended at a university library outside of Los Angeles. About thirty of us participated in this particular exercise. Many of us identified as either Black or Hispanic. It was obvious as the exercise progressed that we nonwhite participants would very publicly be on the losing end. Here are some of the questions we were asked:

  • If your family ever inherited money, step forward.
  • If you grew up in an urban setting, step back.
  • If you’ve ever been questioned by the police, step back.
  • If your ancestors were forced to come to this country, step back.
  • If English is your first language, step forward.

It went on forever. I could feel the restlessness of the Black and Brown people around me. When it was over, almost every one of us had moved to the back of the group, and almost every white person had made it to the front. I wondered who decided this was a good exercise and what was the point. What discussions would come out of calling out marginalized employees with questions that only see us as victims of our circumstances? As usual, the white people walked away virtually unscathed while the rest of us, seething, returned to our seats.

To say it was uncomfortable is an understatement. I was angry. And it wasn’t just because my colleagues now knew private aspects of my personal life they had no business knowing. I was angry that the questions relegated us to our experiences. I knew this would only hurt whatever relationships we had with white people. Plus, there wasn’t any follow-up to the exercise or to any other part of the training. Apparently, the DEI workshop box was checked, and the organization was done for the year. I wish I could say this was the exception and not the rule. But I can’t.

In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, organizations publicly pledged that they would dedicate resources to DEI initiatives. During this time, companies brought in consultants and even created full-time positions to address workplace issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion. From the outside, employers seemed to have good intentions. It looked like they were genuinely interested in creating better work environments for all of their employees.

What they didn’t understand — or refused to understand — was that it takes more than simply hiring someone to address issues within an organization. It takes a top-down commitment to be part of that change. In my own experience, DEI trainers focus on employees much more than they do the employers. People at the top seem to have little to no incentive to change. It’s easier to believe that the problem lies solely with staff. 

I witnessed this firsthand about a year ago when a cannabis company contacted me to do a DEI workshop for them. Now, full disclosure. I don’t typically do these types of training. While my work in racial justice has some parallels to DEI work, the business aspect should be something in which a DEI person is well-versed and able to provide training specific to workplace dynamics. However, I met with them anyway and brought along my white friend Sandra, who has done DEI consulting for over twenty years.

We spoke with a white woman who I will call Rachel. Rachel explained what the company hoped to accomplish. She wanted employees trained on recognizing and addressing racism, sexism, etc., amongst each other. She also wanted them to learn now how to start difficult conversations around these topics. The previous year, the company formed a DEI committee of six employees, and that group was trying to figure out their role within the organization. She hoped we could provide guidance for them, too. 

. . . even if the leadership didn’t need training, the optics of requiring that only employees participate in the workshop would tank any efforts toward real change.

Prior to the meeting, I looked through the company’s website and immediately took note of the homogenous makeup of the executive board, whose six members consisted of five white men and one Asian man. There were no women. My friend and I brought this up to Rachel. We explained that having little diversity in leadership would make the training even more difficult. Rachel responded, “But we are diverse. We have Joe.” Joe was the Asian man. I responded that there were also no women. She said nothing. I then asked if they had done any type of employee survey to find out not only race and gender but also gender identity and sexual identity — important information for any organization wanting to diversify their organization. Rachel said they had not. 

I changed the subject back to leadership. I explained to Rachel that the board must lead by example — meaning they participate in diversity training, too. The company’s leadership training should be specific to their roles as leaders, while also addressing their own biases as men in an industry led by mostly white men, where minorities and women are rarely seen in their roles. Rachel’s response was telling. It’s the reason we passed on doing the DEI workshop. She said, “The leadership doesn’t need training. They want to focus on employees.”

My friend Sandra explained that, even if the leadership didn’t need training, the optics of requiring that only employees participate in the workshop would tank any efforts toward real change. If employees saw leadership excusing itself from taking part, they wouldn’t take the training seriously. Rachel simply repeated what she said: Leadership would not be taking the training. As I said, Sandra and I passed on doing the workshop. Neither of us had any interest in working with an organization that didn’t truly want to change.

I’ve taken numerous diversity workshops through employers, so I’m not surprised by the attitude of this organization. Oftentimes, upper management will require these workshops with no follow-up and no assessment to see if the training actually did any good. These organizations don’t ask employees about their experiences within the company, and they’re not about to start now. To them, requiring employees to take DEI training is merely another duty they must perform. They have little interest in doing the actual work of pushing toward any real cultural shifts within their organization that would help create a healthier environment for workers.

I could blame the failure of DEI on the actual people who claim to be experts in the field. However, I know many of them are committed to driving real change if the organizations would give them the tools and support to do so. Most employers want to blame their toxic work environments on the employees themselves. But let’s put the blame where it lies — on leadership and their refusal to take any responsibility for the work environment that they created. In fact, ignoring this toxic workspace is counterintuitive to an organization’s bottom line. Studies show that a diverse workforce is profitable. In other words, the more diverse an organization, the greater their bottom line. But if a company’s sole purpose for DEI training is increased profits, I don’t predict much change.

Photo by Jorge Torres on Unsplash

Cultural shifts in the workplace occur when an organization is serious about creating an environment where employees can be their authentic selves, where they don’t feel that assimilation is the only way for them to succeed. That level of commitment requires management to take an unflinching look at where the organization is falling short and what it can do to address those issues. From my own experience, employers consistently fall short here. They think one training will solve all their problems. That shows how unserious they are about DEI, which takes continuous, uncomfortable conversations. That’s the only way workplace culture can climb out of these toxic work environments. Organizations might lose people who see DEI training as doing more harm than good. However, consider the good workers they have already lost. These employees walk away because they have reached their limits working for an organization that doesn’t care about them.

If companies require that all employees participate in DEI workshops, they’re probably patting themselves on the back for their efforts. In reality, it’s a small feat with no long-term reward for workers. The idea that every prejudice can be eradicated by going through a bunch of random exercises that mostly serve as performative ways to make non-marginalized participants feel good is ridiculous at best. White workers get to tell their friends that they completed DEI training, and now they’re a better person. But they're probably the same person with better talking points. This isn’t the way to change workplace culture. Companies who have successfully addressed their challenges around diversity, equity, and inclusion understand that the work to change minds requires first understanding what those issues are. 

As I previously mentioned, it’s important for employers to know the makeup of their organizations — not only race and age but also gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. With this information, they can then create a survey around common biases we know people bring into the workplace. Discuss attainable goals and chart out a way to achieve those goals. Remember to keep employees in the loop throughout the process. Transparency goes a long way towards creating trust. Map out a timeline for these training sessions with clear goals and expectations for participants. Leadership needs to participate in two trainings — one specific to addressing DEI as a leader, the other the same training employees take. Workers need to see people at the top taking this initiative seriously and willing to work alongside them to achieve common goals. 

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

It seems like a lot of work, right? That’s because it is. The one-and-done approach to DEI that companies love to roll out is smoke and mirrors. It’s all show and no substance. Companies committed to ensuring a more welcoming work environment for employees must reach out to experts in this field — or hire a full-time DEI employee — who can guide them through this difficult process. Changing workplace culture means experiencing growing pains that make people uncomfortable in their own skin. However, considering the discomfort too many employees endure in silence, doing nothing is unconscionable. When these people leave, it’s easy for employers to say, “Well, they weren’t a good fit.” In fact, it’s just the opposite. The organization isn’t a good fit. If companies don’t address toxic workplace culture around DEI, they can expect that people will continue to leave. They can expect their organizations to become more homogenous and even less welcoming for people who don’t fit into their company’s toxic mold.

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