The Executive Order on Diversity Training

The President’s recent Executive Order 13950 (EO), titled Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping, sparked concern, confusion, and perhaps even relief by those involved in delivering or receiving diversity and inclusion training in the federal government and among government contractors. The EO effectively halted such training throughout the federal government while the Office of Personnel Management, (the government’s human resources office), reviews all such training programs, as the EO requires. Federal contractors and grant recipients are scrambling to determine whether their diversity and inclusion programs comply, and the Department of Labor (DOL) has responded by establishing procedures for individuals to send errant program materials or otherwise complain about putative non-compliant training to DOL. The EO has even had ripple effects spreading to academia and corporate America.

The upshot of all of this has been confusion and misdirection at a time when many organizational leaders are seeking ways to strengthen their understanding of systemic and institutional inequity, the ways it manifests in the workplace, and effective mitigation strategies.

The EO represents a missed opportunity to lead in this area at a time of heightened concern. It effectively throws the baby out with the bathwater by casting doubt upon all diversity and training programs, because its author takes issue with the particular tactics of some.

The overall thrust of the EO is that America has never had problems with racism, that we are a nation founded upon equal opportunity and individual merit, and that any views to the contrary constitute a “destructive ideology” that “misrepresents” this country’s history and are in and of themselves divisive. Such views should not be dismissed out of hand, although the impulse to do so may be strong. They are shared by some leaders—some of whom diversity trainers like me want to reach—who believe that racial discussions have no place in the workplace and that they are inherently divisive. However, not calling out the elephant in the room does not make the elephant go away, or mean the elephant isn’t there. It still is.

Organizations are not separate and apart from the culture and environment in which they exist, and neither are their people. The fact that racial and other forms of inequity exist in the larger American society means that human beings who hold well-documented unconscious biases bring these biases into their work environments, which translate into policies and practices that undermine equal opportunity. By now, the neuroscience behind how our brains work to produce unconscious bias is well documented. The fact that our brains work this way doesn’t mean we are to “blame” for our unconsciously held biases, but neither does it let us off the hook. We can and still should be held accountable for actions that perpetuate inequity, especially as strategies are available to help us interrupt and mitigate action on the basis of such bias.

The EO does highlight one important point: diversity training conducted by those unskilled in the discipline can do more harm than good. Research supports the EO’s claim that diversity training can actually work to reinforce stereotypes and increase resistance to programs promoting equal opportunity. Organizational leaders would be wise to carefully assess prospective trainers to ensure they have experience grounded in science and research, and that they advance a pedagogy that is aligned with organizational values and with the research on how to best influence individual attitudes and behavior on this complex subject. This means, at a minimum, employees should not be selected solely because they have an interest in the subject and come from a particular minority group. 

No one or unitary perspective constitutes the truth when it comes to the experience of race relations in America. If our history books or historical dogma tell one story, that is not proof that all other viewpoints “misrepresent” our country’s history. Saying the words that our country was founded upon a principle that individuals are created equal and should be allowed to pursue their happiness and prosperity on the basis of their individual merit does not make it so. Such words are not self-actualizing. Rather, they require vigilance and ceaseless action to transform them from inert words on a page to the lived experience of the people.

If you are a leader (covered or not by the EO) considering diversity and inclusion training for your organization, do not be dissuaded by the EO or diverted from the fundamental task at hand. All diversity and inclusion training is not created equal. A well-designed course is an effective tool in your diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) toolkit, to be leveraged in service of the task of dismantling workplace inequity. A skilled diversity trainer working with motivated leaders can be a valued partner on this journey.

Use the EO, then, as a prompt to review your DEIB program to determine if it needs recalibrating to align with your organization’s highest values, and the best research about what does and doesn’t work when it comes to changing hearts and minds. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

About the Author

Phillis Morgan is the founder and principal consultant for Resilient At Work and has more than 30 years of experience as an employment lawyer. Phillis is a vice-chair of the ABA Law Practice Division’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and a meditation teacher, and is the author of The Federal Labor Relations Manual: Your Guide to Navigating the Law; and the forthcoming book Courage in Conflict: A Manager’s Guide to Reducing Conflict Using Mindfulness.

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