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How Bias and Diversity Training Can Backfire

Diversity is on many agencies’ to-do lists these days, thanks to very public discussions about gender and racial biases in our industry. The fact that our society is increasingly diverse means that ad agencies and marketing firms need to reflect that diversity at least somewhat in order to craft messages that will resonate with diverse consumer groups. But diversity programs are running into an unexpected problem—it seems that some diversity training actually reinforces inherent biases instead of redressing them.

A 2016 study presented in the Harvard Business Review, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,“ found that compulsory diversity training can create a strong backlash. People resist, or actually become antagonistic to the effort to bring greater diversity into, and increase sensitivity to biases in the workplace. In fact, some studies indicate that diversity or anti-bias training can actually aggravate and escalate negative behaviors.

Some of this resistance results from employees expressing their desire for autonomy—and resentment that they are being lumped in with actual biased people, when, “hey, I am the least biased person I know.” That is called the bias blindspot; few people realize they have or hold biases until someone else points them out. And people tend to get angry when they’re put in the hot seat.

Another issue with many compulsory diversity and anti-bias programs is that they employ negative language, full of thou-shalt-nots and threatened punishments; they also suggest that the training is remedial—you are doing something wrong and it (you) must be fixed. On the other hand, when programs are made voluntary, people embrace and tend to apply the lessons learned. People are more open to invitations to be boosters of diversity, while responding negatively when you shove it down their throats.

(Un) Training

The best diversity and anti-bias results generally come from programs not designed specifically to address diversity or bias. Some tactics effective in improving diversity include: targeted college recruitment; self-managed teams; task forces; cross training; and mentoring programs.

Another big effectiveness tool is social accountability. People desire to be thought well of by their peers. When accountability is built into programs, people tend to adjust their behaviors to reach a higher standard of behavior. Diversity task forces have proven particularly effective. Having a task force member in each department reminds people to consider how behaviors will be “graded” by the task force, improving equitable performance reviews, raises and promotions.

Some Diversity Tactics to Try

You can’t push people to embrace diversity… but you can create an environment and practices wherein diversity becomes an organic part of ad agency operations and collaboration.

Focus on principles, not rules. Rules dictate; principles guide. Principles empower employees to do the right thing, while rules threaten punishment for disobedience. Use principles to increase employee acceptance and promotion of diversity. Encourage generosity, empathy and reciprocity.

Do activities as a group. Let different employees organize activities so everyone gets to share interests and things they love.

Constantly change up in-house teams so people learn how to work within differing dynamics and styles. Appoint people to lead; and next time, have those same people work in supporting roles. Give everyone opportunities to lead, try new things and work with different people on a variety of projects.

Encourage civil dialogue. You can (and should) disagree about the work, but make respect and intelligent reasoning your unbreakable rule.

Talk about difficult stuff if it appears to be creeping into the office. We live in divisive times. Every day, news stories exacerbate emotions and make people angry, depressed or just get them fired up. Sometimes, you just need to discuss things. People need to vent. Leaders should be willing to moderate discussions when discussion is unavoidable. Or, invite an outside moderator from a local university to help manage the discussion. Keep it clean. Listen, discuss, summarize, and thank people for sharing. Seek paths that may lead agency people to common ground. Also look for actionable ways for the agency to make a difference.

Working toward building a more diverse agency is a smart strategy, but difficult to achieve by simply laying down new rules. Biases are ingrained; the most effective routes to diversity appear to be indirect. Concentrate on changing behaviors by encouraging better or preferred behaviors, and spend extra effort on leading your culture toward a positive, more diverse future.

Let us know what efforts you are taking to recruit and hire a more diverse workforce, and how your diversity efforts are reshaping your culture and creative output. Email editor@secondwindonline.com

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