The Problem with Diversity Training

09/27/2011 03:57 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2011

Recently, in my office, we had to undergo mandatory diversity training. I expected it to be bad. Maybe a little hokey. I wasn't expecting to leave the training infuriated.

My office is actually quite diverse. Out of 100 or so people, we have a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, nationalities, and ages, to say nothing of gender, sexual orientation, religion, and race. We're a little female heavy, but that's not unusual for my chosen field. There is some interdepartmental strife, but generally speaking, we all get along fairly well.

Which brings me to our mandated diversity training earlier this week. The first part of the day was supposed to focus on generational diversity, with the second focusing on "all the other stuff" (the facilitator's words, not mine).

The first video we watched depicted a Generation-X black woman in a discussion with her Baby Boomer white male boss about who should land a large new account. The woman, Glenda, advocated for another female coworker, while the man, Stuart, advocated for his friend Bob. There were several disturbing things about their interaction, none of which had to do with their generational differences. After Glenda angrily pointed out that perhaps Stuart was advocating for Bob because Bob is his friend, Stuart responded by reasserting his authority as her boss in a demeaning way, and demanding Glenda lower her voice. Angry black woman ... check! Stuart then brought up that he felt Bob deserved the job because "he's been with this company 30 years" and "he has a family to support." Sexism? Old boys' network? CHECK!

The video concluded, and the facilitator, a black man, asked what generational conflict we observed. I raised my hand, and the person sitting next to me, another woman roughly my age (we'll call her Erica), replied we observed far more racial and gender conflict (and the attendant stereotypes) than generational.

The facilitator dismissed us, waving his hand and saying "ignore that."

Well, ok then. We spent the next 15 minutes discussing the video with the group at our table. Erica and I continued to press the issue of the troubling stereotypes, only to have the facilitator come over to the table and tell us not to get "sidetracked." It's also worth noting that of my group, there was one white male, married with kids. He said he appreciated that Stuart took Bob's family situation into account. Which led to a discussion of the gendered implications of childcare, but I'll save that rabbit hole for another time.

In the interests of brevity, I'll skip to the second most appalling part of the training. It's the afternoon (time for "all the other stuff" the facilitator mentioned earlier), and we're watching the video again. This time, Glenda is in a sales projection meeting, with the owner of the company (we'll call him John), a "traditionalist" (pre-WWII generation) white male. John finishes his presentation, then asks for questions. Glenda asks about the origin of the estimates and cites evidence suggesting that perhaps the projections are overly optimistic. John makes a snarky remark, and Glenda follows up with further questions. John dresses her down infront of the other people in the meeting, calling her insubordinate and saying he doesn't like her "attitude."

The angry black woman is back y'all!

At this point, I am speechless. Actually physically speechless. Given how dismissive he was earlier, I don't even bother pointing out to the facilitator how awful this little vignette was. I sit in stunned silence at my table, while one of my coworkers shoots me empathetic glances. The facilitator then looked directly at me and said "I don't want you all to think we're only showing interactions between this black Gen-X woman and older white men. There are other groups, other people on the video. But we're not going to show them today."

That's right. I don't want you to think we're only showing these vignettes ... but we're only showing these vignettes.

I understand the rationale behind diversity training, I really do. It's important to understand how words and actions can be offensive or hurtful to someone of a different background. It's important, especially in the work place, for everyone to feel a relative degree of comfort, and to be able to communicate effectively.

But I have yet to experience or hear of a good training. Something that worked, that didn't involve dismissiveness, or stereotypes trotted out not to be debunked, but taken at face value.

Back to the drawing board.