Diversity Training: 8 Things to Avoid

By Barbara Frankel

dumb bald white guy cartoonCartoons of clueless, bald white men or trainers scolding employees about being racist or sexist are more than just diversity downers.

Bad diversity training—perpetuating stereotypes or alienating the audience—can be more damaging than actual bias. But how do you avoid getting roped into buying bad—and often expensive—diversity training?

We interviewed executives at four companies with very different U.S. employee size bases—Northrop Grumman (No. 28 in the DiversityInc Top 50), and Brown-Forman, Bristol-Myers Squibb and DuPont (all on DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies list)—about what works, and what doesn’t, with their diversity training. Northrop Grumman has 62,000 U.S. employees, DuPont has 22,000, Bristol-Myers Squibb has 14,000 and Brown-Forman has 2,400.

All four of these companies are global—and have started global D&I training as well—but for purposes of this story we will stick to U.S. training.

So, what should you avoid? The Blame Game; Stereotypes; A Cookie-Cutter Approach; A Free-For-All; Hawkers; Being Stingy: Leaving Out Senior Leaders; and Training Without Metrics.

1. The Blame Game

Lydia Mallett, DuPont
Lydia Mallett

Blaming white men for all past generations’ inequities, including slavery, as one executive described his diversity training, is the wrong approach.

“Blame” training used to be popular, especially when diversity training lasted a week and there was time to build people up after tearing them down, said Lydia Mallett, Director, Organizational Vibrancy, DuPont.

Today, she says, good training is far less confrontational and much more about unconscious bias and how white men—and everyone—can benefit from understanding where they come from and how that impacts their behavior.

2. Stereotypes

Those bald white guys in the cartoon? Those angry Black women or passive Asian execs? They have all been seen in actual diversity-training presentations.

Nothing turns people off more—or makes them mock the trainer—than poorly designed graphics and images and the perpetuation of stereotypes. Vet any presentation your trainer is delivering, and if it isn’t up to your standards, run for the hills.

3. Cookie-Cutter Approach

Linda Leonard, Bristol-Myers Squibb
Linda Leonard

Most effective diversity training (actually, any training) is personal and experiential. What never works is a boring person with a PowerPoint presentation talking down to people while they doze off.

“People have to have a personal connection and a very personal experience,” said Linda Leonard, Associate Director, Diversity & Inclusion, at Bristol-Myers Squibb.

And making training relevant to what’s going on in the world.

“When we’ve sat people down without PowerPoint presentations and talked about what is significant, people

Ralph de Chabert, Brown-Forman
Ralph de Chabert

were willing to take risks and learn,” explained Ralph de Chabert, Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Brown-Forman, citing the company’s recent discussions about race after the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Mo.

4. A Free-For-All

Northrop Grumman used to have each of its business units implement (and pay for) whatever type of diversity training its leaders wanted, everything from general awareness to a specific topic, depending on what was hot that year, explained Dan Ellerman, Director for Diversity and Inclusion. “It was a little bit disjointed,” he continued. “We had a lot of

Dan Ellerman, Northrop Grumman
Dan Ellerman

trainers and a lot of vendors.”

When the company centralized the training, he said, it was able to hone in on what it wanted managers. Educational training on micro-inequities and other interpersonal skill sets became universal for all managers, including top leaders.

5. Hawkers 

Some trainers are in business to perpetuate themselves—and they will tell you they need to come back frequently.

Lydia thinks that is unnecessary—and expensive. “Be on the lookout for education that could be incorporated into your organization and that you can facilitate yourself,” she says.

The majority of DiversityInc Top 50 and 25 Noteworthy companies use their employee resource groups as focus groups to vet training and often as training instructors or ambassadors. Resource-group leaders often themselves receive leadership training.

“They volunteer and we put them through a mini train-the-trainer course,” Northrop Grumman’s Ellerman said, specifically referencing the company’s resource group for people with disabilities and LGBT employees. The groups then hold lunch-and-learns and spread the educational messaging through the company.

6. Being Stingy

We asked companies on the DiversityInc Top 50 and 25 Noteworthy lists to estimate their diversity-training costs as a percentage of management workforce. The average cost for companies with more than 10,000 employees was $350,000 annually per 1,000 managers (or $350 per manager). The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) estimates per-capita management costs for general training below based on the number of employees in the company.

Annual Cost of Training per Manager
 DI Top 50/25 Noteworthy$350
 Companies <1,000 Employees$922
 Companies 1,000–10,000 Employees$761
 Companies >10,000 Employees$375

7. Leaving Out Senior Leaders

Kymberlee Dwinell, Northrop Grumman
Kymberlee Dwinell

Accommodations are often made for senior leaders so they can benefit most from the training, even if it adds to the cost. “If a senior person wants a facilitator, we will secure that. If they want virtual instruction, we will accommodate,” said Northrop Grumman’s Kymberlee Dwinell, Global Diversity & Inclusion Director.

Employee engagement is linked to executive performance evaluations, and diversity and inclusion (and completion of training) is a component of that, she said.

The involvement of senior leaders adds credibility to the perception of value to the organization, but only if the leaders talk about their experiences.

At Northrop Grumman, President and CEO Wes Bush is a very visible supporter of diversity—and has participated in and advocates for diversity training.

The same is true of Brown-Forman Chairman and CEO Paul Varga and his team. “Our leaders are able to say, ‘I’ve been there. I’ve taken it. I’ve struggled and it’s going to be OK.’ If you don’t have leaders who do that, they can’t understand,” de Chabert said. For example, he cited training around the issues of privilege: “Someone will come up to them [senior leaders] and say, ‘You’ll never believe what they made me do.’ In our case, they know it.”

8. Training Without Metrics

Diversity training, goals must be clearly defined.

At Bristol-Myers Squibb, which has had diversity training since 2007, engagement and retention of people who have completed diversity training versus those who have not is measured, as well as promotion rates over time of people in underrepresented groups.

DuPont also uses the D&I component of its engagement survey and is now including training in executive performance reviews as corporate objectives.

Northrop Grumman uses its annual engagement survey, which has an inclusion index, to assess the impact of diversity training on retention and promotion rates. When data show a need in a specific demographic area, diversity training’s impact is assessed, said Dwinell. For example, if there was an issue in retaining women at a certain level and managers received diversity training, the company would examine the retention levels over time to see if there was an improvement.

“It’s song and dance, song and dance. Did it work? Did it have impact?,” asked Brown-Forman’s de Chabert. “Many consultants show you evaluations, but what does it really show?”

“It’s almost laughable when I read that diversity training doesn’t work,” he continued. “It’s not about it not working. What doesn’t work are the systems of accountability. At the end of the day, what was the impact? How are you applying learning in terms of performance?”


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