The Joys of Mandatory Workplace Diversity Training, a Guided Tour

(Andrey Popov/Dreamstime)
People resent being treated like dull children.

On Thursday morning, I found myself staring down the barrel of that familiar corporate ritual: mandatory workplace-diversity-and-inclusion training. Well into my second decade of employment with a large multinational corporation, the prospect of again clicking through the soul-deadening exercises filled me with a sense of almost comical dread. Through a pragmatic lens, I should’ve been happy at the instruction to push aside my real job and spend a few hours collecting a paycheck for doing very little, but instead I procrastinated as long as I could until I finally broke down.

Just a few clicks into the sterile legalese, I was quickly reminded why I’d developed such an instinctive resentment of the task. Diversity-and-inclusion training is a modern necessity for any substantial employer, and I do not doubt that a diverse and inclusive workforce drives innovation and engagement, thereby enhancing the bottom line. But it cannot be ignored that the reason diversity training exists as a mandate rather than an option is that trial lawyers have scared corporations into a defensive pose. Because large companies cannot trust that management in multiple locations will navigate the myriad legal tar pits that may result in a lawsuit, they are driven to establish that they’ve done their utmost to prevent a lapse. In other words, the whole thing has become a check-the-box activity: You certify that you’ve received the training, and we’ll produce that document in a court of law should an applicable suit be filed against us.

My company chooses to purchase many of its training modules from a third party. This vendor writes the curriculum and populates slides with bland, transferrable diversity-and-inclusion language and concepts, making what I’m sure is its best effort to liven up the sessions with stock photography and real-life examples. The modules are sold to multiple customers, so by nature they can’t be specific to any singular business or company. At face value, it’s a decent business decision and allows the vendor to apply its specialized skillset to producing a multi-language package at a fraction of the cost of creating the material internally. And yet, the resultant mess serves better to create more of the alleged problems than to resolve them. Let’s dive in.

Here is the world’s most generic white guy to kickstart you down the path to appreciating diversity. Are you not already excited? One can only assume he’s got his pencil ready to start checking the boxes of all the diverse stereotypes we need to remember to include as we start our journey. The dissonance between the message on the left and who the mind subconsciously perceives to be the diversity gatekeeper on the right is jarring.

I honestly don’t follow where this is going. Is Lian’s Chinese descent somehow relevant to the matter at hand? Am I supposed to accidentally-but-on-purpose infer that Lian will better understand the problematic client because they’re both Chinese? It’s a fictional scenario, but it’s written in such a way that in order to understand why the scenario is being posed, I have to go along with Phillip’s implied belief that Lian’s ancestry can somehow help matters. Doesn’t that make me a little bit . . . problematic? Am I being subliminally trapped here? I think I am! That’s not very diverse.

Also, Phillip looks like you just asked him how many nickels go into a dollar and he’s trying to do long division in his head.

Perhaps the issue I initially found most problematic about this scenario is that I’ve legitimately never heard the word “matriculate” used conversationally in my life. Stilted dialogue aside, does the race of the middle-aged faculty member even matter here? Wouldn’t the “you people” be equally in question even if the speaker himself was also Maori?

But the key to the solution lies in the words “faculty” and “student.” This places the events in the setting of academia, and suddenly it’s not hard to see a middle-aged white guy using “matriculate” in conversation. More important, we know we’re dealing in academia, where quotas, frowned upon in the private realm, are in fact legally mandated. I’m actually not sure at all what the problem is here past the “you people.” It seems like I’m being asked to deny how federal law works in the interests of diversity. Now I’m more confused about diversity than ever.

Oh, no, Miguel. What are you doing?

It’s notable that while generic “middle-aged Caucasian” gets tasked with the relatively risk-free assignment of explaining quotas, poor Miguel here gets painted as a misogynist. What if my name is Miguel and I’m reading this? Aren’t I going to question just why, of thousands and thousands of names to choose from, Miguel has to have the problem with women?

I think the bigger issue here is that Hisao appears to be talking to a deaf person. I’m picturing Hisao saying his line over and over again at increasing volumes until he finally realizes what the problem is. Perhaps the phrasing of this diversity lesson could be altered to reflect whether Hisao’s new co-worker can read lips, or whether Hisao needs to condescend to him or her in sign language.

Here we have a presumably muscle-bound cross-fitting Hispanic male concealing his insecurities by making fun of women. The whites and Asians keep getting all the good roles in this production.

Unless Kate and her assistant work in a ceiling-fan showroom, I honestly cannot conceive of a scenario in which your religious headgear somehow prevents you from getting work done. Kate is extremely problematic. Could it possibly be because of her past treatment at the hands of Miguel or Gustavo?

“Job well done”? Did Joe Biden write the dialogue for Satish’s character? Is my diversity lesson here supposed to be that it is okay to stereotype Indians?

Alfredo — in a refreshing change of pace from the now-established pattern of Hispanics making disparaging remarks about women — makes a disparaging remark about minorities.

You know, I am beginning to think that the diversity-training module could use some diversity training.


How do you resolve this? The knee-jerk response in the legal-drone community will be to update the training material to better address shortcomings and get up to speed with the list of 2016 classes and grievances. But there’s a catch to the more-cowbell solution — the individual cowbell notes are now so closely spaced together that they become one continuous tone. Any one photograph or name you choose in any scenario becomes the stereotype. If the stereotype is positive, you are thereby excluding all others but that individual’s perceived class, and vice versa. The classic corporate solution of the past has been to use painfully staged “rainbow” photography and writing, but in today’s environment, one will never run short of new classes to invent and identify as.

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While my remarks above are intended as satire, they are based on the very real phenomenon of society’s obsession with critically dissecting and parsing every phrase for any perceived micro-aggressions. Even if none exist, they can and will be found. Intent or messaging no longer matter in a world where the shrillest voice earns apologies and protected caste status. Everyone you include becomes a stereotype, and everyone you exclude becomes a lack of diversity.

This is the innate and intractable problem with stratifying diversity into classes or castes or categories rather than dealing in individuals. The rabbit hole becomes infinite as individuals break out of their class by expressing individuality, while you attempt to fence them back into an updated class system. It’s an unbreakable cycle, and the only escape is to avoid it in the first place.

Everyone you include becomes a stereotype, and everyone you exclude becomes a lack of diversity.

The fact is that diversity training of the sort shown above is now a dusty relic of a bygone era. Previous generations were not paddling through the rapids of political correctness at all times, and were much more likely to exhibit some of the comically overwrought examples that are written into training scenarios. Most corporate employees today have likely had diversity and inclusion thumped into their skulls for years. In many cases, they exist in a state of constant and dull paranoia that their actions or words will somehow violate the ever-shifting goalposts of diversity protocol and cost them their careers.

You can argue that an anecdotal decrease in egregious incidents proves that the training has had its intended effect, but only if you’re somehow able to explain why incidents that continue to occur are not prevented by the same training. The answer, of course, is that some people will always act poorly, regardless of the material you make them click through. For the remainder, is the growing absurdity of the exercise still worthwhile?

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My feelings of dread toward this annual diversity-and-inclusion ritual are also a reflection of the cultural blowback that is currently manifested in an affinity for Donald Trump. Whether or not Trump actually cares to do anything about this (spoiler alert — as he’s never to my knowledge even mentioned tort reform, he doesn’t care to), he at least appears willing to stick fingers in the eyes of the constantly expanding grievance state that requires never-ending software patches to ensure that one is up to date on the current version of sacred cows.

#related#People don’t like being treated like dull children, no matter how much effort you put into crafting diversity scenarios or uploading cheerful stock photography. And people don’t like operating under an ever-expanding list of unwitting micro-aggressions. And seemingly out of resourceful paths to take, they’ve turned to Trump as a sort of collective middle finger to the grievance culture ceaselessly holding them accountable for some new misdeed. That they’re employing the very same style of grievance culture they so loathe in doing so exhibits a sort of cosmic irony that I can only hope will be fully appreciated at some distant future date.

But as there’s no eliminating the legal need for diversity training, perhaps a compromise solution might be to space the actual training material out in five- or ten-year intervals. Employees could be presented yearly with an option to take the full course, or elect out, provided they agree to click a box similar to those that display software “Terms and Conditions” clauses. This would stipulate that by electing out of the training, they are agreeing to allow the company the same legal protections regardless. It’s not a perfect solution. But it’s better than reading about Kate hilariously offending some new minority each year. I don’t hold my employer accountable for the excesses of modern grievance society and its runaway legal system, but the least it could do is look for ways to avoid contributing to the problem.

— Kilgore Trout is trapped somewhere in a large corporation where he officially has no controversial opinions on anything.


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