Why Diversity and Inclusion Training is Limited at Best Without a Strategic Equity Plan


In April 2018, a Starbucks manager at a franchise in Philadelphia called the police to remove two Black men who were waiting for their colleague to arrive, and accused them of trespassing. The  actions of this employee led to the arrest of the men and generated a national firestorm of outrage about racial discrimination that went viral on social media, with a video of the incident receiving over 8 million views in the first couple of days. Suddenly, a public relations crisis had emerged that led to protests and calls for a national boycott on Starbucks. In response, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson made a public apology and called for a professional development training for all Starbucks staff across the nation to address the damaging effects of racial bias in decision-making. The impact of this incident was so great that even the mayor of Philadelphia, Jim Kennedy, addressed the public about the settlement reached between the two arrested men and the city: 

This was an incident that evoked a lot of pain in our City, pain that would’ve resurfaced over and over again in protracted litigation, which presents significant legal risks and high financial and emotional costs for everyone involved.

The nation-wide Starbucks employee training closed the doors of its 8,000 stores for one day, with a cost of lost sales estimated at 16.7 million, with the additional cost of negative press about the incident estimated at 16 million, plus the cost of development and execution of the training itself. Certainly a swift response to this explosive incident was necessary and commendable, but did the one-size-fits-all day of all-staff training promoted by Starbucks for approximately 175,000 employees actually produce the desired significant change for the employees of the company? If this training was the centerpiece of their response without coordination of robust achievement and accountability measures, it is doubtful that much has changed in employee competencies. Although well-designed trainings can and should play an important role in moving the dial on organizational culture change, a training (or series) in isolation from a larger strategic plan will have no more influence in preventing unwelcoming and hostile behaviors than the one-off sexual harassment prevention video that the average human resources department requires employees to view every year or two. 

“We need training!” is the call at many organizations in response to an alarmingly discriminatory or harassing act in the workplace. Often organizations resolve that they need “diversity training” in good faith efforts to increase their institution’s capacity to promote and support a more diverse, inclusive and equitable environment. Then perhaps the organization’s diversity officer is called upon (or, in the absence of this position, a middle manager or ad hoc committee leads the charge) to plan to train staff to address the issue of the day – unconscious bias, bystander intervention, intercultural communication, etc. Later, an all-staff meeting is called and employees undergo a training by an internal or contracted EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion) professional development trainer. The trainer is at best very engaging and wins the approval of the of participants for the insights and the moment of reflection provided. A satisfaction survey may also be featured, in which participants in the training give the trainer high marks, but little or no data is collected to measure desired changes in the participants. What from the training actually sticks and changes the toxic dynamics of an organizational culture? Trainings must not be delivered in isolation from a larger institutional plan with accountability measures.

As an educator and lead EDI professional development coordinator and consultant working in local government, in higher education, and in secondary education, I’ve seen this scenario play out in the field often. At best, these flash-in-the-pan training exercises conclude in celebrating the process and experience but giving little to no attention to the actual achievements or notable improvements to the organization. For this reason I advocate for a more comprehensive approach for enduring learning resulting in organizational culture change.

Here are a few essential considerations for EDI professional development:

  1. Collect the data: When there are red flags at your organization that indicate that staff need training, be responsive but also be thorough. If there’s an unwelcoming work environment, for example, chances are there are multiple issues contributing to the condition. Well-planned investigation and organization-wide data collection will help you find out the range and depth of issues in the workplace, and this in turn will help your organization be better informed to determine underlying issues and the plan of action for response.
  2. Establish goals in partnership: Be clear about what you are trying to achieve and don’t fall into “the savior” trap. Remember to keep front and center in the goal-setting and planning process the people most directly impacted by the institutional issues being addressed. Decide with people, not for them, how to respond to pressing workplace issues to ensure that needs are met and to build increasing collective ownership and accountability in the work culture.
  3. Think long-term: Reacting to fires that pop up with impromptu trainings is expensive, taxing on morale, and rarely extinguishes the source(s) of the fire. Instead of spending all of your resources in crisis-response mode, invest proactively in the human capital of your organization by developing a long-term strategic EDI plan to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion in your organization. Of course, strategic planning thoughtfully tied to the mission and core values of the organization is a significant investment in staff time and funds, like preventative health care, the investment will be returned with dividends in the long-run from the decrease in employee turnover rates, the increase in productivity, and the reduction of HR investigations and potentially costly lawsuits.
  4. Utilize good pedagogy: A one-and-done event, or a one-size-fits-all training may make a splash in the moment but will not likely change the current of organizational culture. For an enduring impact in trainings, be clear to communicate desired learning outcomes, how outcomes are in alignment with the mission or core values of the organization, and how learned skills are expected to be demonstrated in the workplace. Learning is enhanced when it involves repetition and application, so there is great benefit in trainings designed to be interactive for participants to grapple with relevant scenarios, and to establish practical and measurable application goals aligned with job duties for practice and accountability after the training is completed.

If the broad goal of diversity training is to create a more inclusive and equitable organization, training participants need to understand how the training is relevant – indeed essential – to their organization and to their own livelihood. And they need to know from the outset because they are aware that equity and inclusion are priorities of their organization.

Essential questions in strategic planning for trainings:

  • Where in the mission and core values do the trainings fit?
  • How do the trainings help fulfill essential duties of the job?
  • How will skills developed from these trainings improve the services that I provide and the quality of my organization?
  • How will success be measured and reflected in performance evaluations?

If participants in a diversity training series can answer these questions, this is a positive indicator of a training designed for enduring impact. Equity, diversity, and inclusion should not be relegated to a superficial checklist resulting in mandatory trainings that staff generally resent because they don’t clearly fit with job expectations and institutional values. Equity, diversity, and inclusion need to be, or become, core values in the DNA of organizational culture and if this is not reflected in the mission, strategic plan and metrics of achievement, the training may at best spark interest, but the approach also risks limiting EDI organizational development to marginal, one-off, and ultimately forgetable trainings.