Does traditional diversity (DEI) training work?

Karith Foster

Equity, inclusion, activism…these attributes have become not simply commonplace in contemporary corporate diversity training, but stated goals. 

Nearly each month, news screens blare with a story of a Fortune-500 company faced with a negative controversy.  The latest is Starbucks with 35 of its executives being named in a lawsuit that alleges the diversity program "benefits them personally to pose as virtuous advocates of 'Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity,' even as it harms the company and its owners." 

The usual remedy? 

A Mandated Diversity Day (pun intended for the cringe-worthy The Office episode, which would most likely not be written in today’s Hollywood).

The Office

Corporations–and those that offer these diversity trainings–tend to work in good faith. 

When a company has harmed a client or employee, based on an identity status, it’s natural to assume that what needs to be created is a more inclusive climate, one that will prevent any further harm. 

The stated objectives of many diversity programs include increasing company and employee diversity and morale, fostering collaboration and inclusion, promoting the advancement of underserved communities, and working towards a better sense of understanding.

But, this begs the question, does traditional diversity training work? 

Traditional diversity training started as early as the 1950s, sparked by the Civil Rights movement. The federal government soon took the lead, and by the end of 1971, “the Social Security Administration had put 50,000 staffers through racial bias training.”

Sixty-five percent of large firms, by 2005, provided diversity training. 

However, despite a long history in the United States, an equally long and robust body of literature has shown that traditional diversity training programs are not effective in achieving its stated goals

Indeed, traditional diversity programs may actually have more adverse effects on its participants than benefits, including: 
  • Causing other cordial and polite employees to tip-toe around each other, 
  • Treating every conversation as if they were made of eggshells. 
  • Participants reporting anger and frustration with being forced to participate in mandatory training. 

In a 2019 study on the unintended consequences of traditional diversity programming found:

  • The presence of organizational diversity initiatives may lead to a presumption of fairness for underrepresented groups, making discrimination harder to identify and litigate
  • Conversely, these initiatives may lead to a presumption of unfairness for members of overrepresented groups, increasing the likelihood that traditionally-advantaged groups will perceive themselves as victims of discrimination
  • The presence of diversity initiatives may increase the attractiveness of organizations to underrepresented groups who anticipate inclusion, but increase felt exclusion and threat among overrepresented groups
  • Finally, the presence of diversity initiatives may signal that underrepresented groups need help to succeed and are thus less competent than their advantaged counterparts.

The INVERSITY™ Solution:

So much of the traditional DEI approach seems to be about penetrating the mind from the outside, and changing the way somebody thinks, feels and believes. 

Instead, the goal of INVERSITY™ is to honor, recognize and celebrate all that we bring to the table — our background, our heritage, our identity — without letting those things completely run the show. 

Karith Foster is teaching people a new way to approach diversity, so this important conversation doesn’t end in a stalemate or create more division and vitriol. We may not leave a workshop holding hands and singing “Kumbaya,” but we can certainly develop a new level of respect for one another and gain the ability to see others as worthy humans who want the same thing that we all do: to be heard, loved, respected and valued. 

Picture this: a keynote or workshop that incorporates laughter to address sensitive topics without causing emotional exhaustion or inciting defensive responses. Sounds amazing, right? Well, that's precisely what Karith does when she uses humor as a tool for helping us listen, learn, and grow, especially in the context of DEIB. Laughter has the power to break down communication barriers, foster connection, and create a positive and inclusive atmosphere that enables us all to thrive. Incorporating laughter in DEIB programming can truly be a game-changer. To get a better insight into this innovative approach, you might want to check out this blog about why laughter is a potent medicine for listening and learning in DEIB programming.

We think that DEI work is a two-way street when it’s actually a six-lane highway.
That compassion component is really what’s lacking in the traditional DEI work. 

For over a decade, Karith Foster had been delivering a diversity program called Stereotyped 101- blending humor, audience participation and personal stories to engage people on sensitive topics—  combining her background as a stand-up comedian with her passion for true inclusivity. 

This program has since evolved into INVERSITY™, the inverse of the word “Diversity,” which has divide/division at its root. Division is exactly what we see happening when diversity is done poorly— that includes checking a box, wagging a finger or placing blame and shame instead of encouraging personal responsibility for behavior and actions.

“My goal is to take the division out of diversity by shifting the focus from what separates and divides us to what we have in common,” Foster says.

She now offers a number of programming options, including keynotes, workshops, consulting, online learning and executive leadership retreats to clients ranging from institutions of higher education and school districts to corporations and associations. Foster remarks: 

“A high priority for me is to offer support for those who have been thrust — and I do mean thrust — into chief diversity officer positions. Many of them were “panic hires” where companies felt compelled to hire into these positions as a defensive measure.

These people found themselves in their role because they come from a ‘marginalized group.’ Without much background or training, they are automatically expected to know how to change and influence a company culture. 

The problem arises when they adopt diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practices that have fallen short for decades. This is where the adoption of the INVERSITY™ methodology and philosophy helps them to thrive in their influential positions.”

And thanks to her unique background as a professional comedian, she found scientific studies that prove humor can positively affect learning, memory retention and motivation. If you’ve ever dreaded a diversity training, you know just how important motivation is! With her INVERSITY™ work, she’s harnessed this power of humor. 

INVERSITY™ takes the "division" out of traditional DEI programming and offers a truly inclusive way to communicate, learn, and create within your own community. By removing the shame, guilt, and politics around there being a right and wrong way to speak or think about our differences, we revolutionize diversity and inclusion, communication, and interpersonal relationships.

In fact, 95% of corporate participants who’ve gone through Karith’s programming said INVERSITY™ was “better” or “much better” than other DEI programs they’ve been through. 

Are You Ready To Do Diversity Differently?