Diversity Training Backfires

by Hans Bader on December 26, 2007 · 23 comments

Employers pay a lot of money for diversity training and sexual harassment training, but often the training backfires and blows up in the face of the employer that paid for it.  In Hartman v. Pena (1995), the Federal Aviation Administration got sued for sexual harassment after it subjected employees to three days of diversity training that scapegoated white males.  After a federal judge refused to dismiss the case against it, the agency had to pay out a settlement to the white male employee who sued.

Diversity training often imparts bad legal advice to managers and employers that can come back to haunt them in court. 

Gail Heriot, a law professor and member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, reports on the sexual harassment training she received at the University of San Diego, in a state (California) where such training is mandatory under state law.  She points out that the training sent the message that criticisms of affirmative action by white male employees are something that the employer should “nip in the bud” through investigations.

This is exceedingly dumb legal advice, since criticism of affirmative action is protected against retaliation by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 1981, and other laws, even when the affirmative action program criticized turns out to have been perfectly legal.  Even the very court rulings that have upheld private-sector affirmative action programs, such as Sisco v. J.S. Alberici Const. Co. (8th Cir. 1981), have allowed employees to sue employers who retaliate against them for criticizing affirmative action.

In the public sector, the employer also faces a First Amendment lawsuit.  The California Department of Corrections attempted to fire John Wallace after he angrily denounced its affirmative action plan to the Hispanic female employee he perceived as benefiting from it.  The California Court of Appeal, however, found that his criticisms of the plan were protected by the First Amendment, and barred Wallace’s firing, in California Department of Corrections v. State Personnel Board, 59 Cal.App.4th 131 (1997).  

Employers are often quite gullible about the claims made by “diversity” trainers.  For example, they permit minority trainers to promote racial stereotypes that would provoke outrage if they were subsequently repeated by white managers or employees.  For example, Glenn Singleton, a wealthy “diversity” trainer, teaches that “white talk” is “impersonal, intellectual, verbal” and “task-oriented,” while “color commentary” is “emotional.” 

If a white person said this, it would rightly be regarded as a ridiculous, racist stereotype that relegates black people to inferior status.  But because Singleton himself is African-American, and he sugarcoats his racist stereotypes about black people by coupling them with ideologically trendy attacks on white people (whom he depicts as “impersonal” and “racist”), liberal school superintendents eat it up. 

Superintendents in places like Arlington, Virginia hire him to give their staffs mandatory “diversity” training.  The Arlington Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. Robert G. Smith, admitted to me that Singleton’s racial theories were “provocative,” but defended his hiring as a way of addressing the minority achievement gap.  That makes absolutely no sense, since Singleton’s racial theories reinforce the idea that studying is “acting white,” a terrible notion that fosters the minority achievement gap.  If any white teacher or school administrator repeats what Singleton claims about minorities not being “intellectual,” he and the school system that employs him will be publicly denounced as a racist, and people will say that the school system itself is to blame for fostering such racist ideas because it hired Singleton to promote them.  (California Superintendent Jack O’Connell, a white liberal, was recently embarrassed, and called racist, after he repeated a belief that Glenn Singleton shared with him: that black people are loud.  Singleton also embarrassed the Seattle Schools in a landmark Supreme Court case).

Major employers have paid out millions of dollars in discrimination claims because of diversity-training programs.  One Fortune 500 company paid out tens of millions of dollars in response to a class-action racial discrimination suit by minority employees, which was fueled by remarks management employees made after undergoing mandatory diversity training (they joked about jelly beans used in the training to represent minority employees.  That, coupled with a poor quality recording in which a manager’s reference to “Saint Nicholas” was misinterpreted as the N-word, created a furor).

Diversity training often triggers workplace conflict and lawsuits, by compelling employees to talk about contentious racial or sexual issues, with resulting acrimony, and remarks that are misinterpreted or perceived as racially or sexually biased.  For example, in Stender v. Lucky Stores (1992), statements made by managers during sensitivity training were held by a court to be admissible as evidence of discriminatory intent within the organization.  That prevented the employer from getting a lawsuit dismissed. 

Many judges take a dim view of diversity training in general.  In Fitzgerald v. Mountain States Tel & Tel. Co. (1995), where employee reactions to diversity training gave rise to a lawsuit, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that “diversity training sessions generate conflict and emotion” and that “diversity training is perhaps a tyranny of virtue.” 

NOTE: THE FIRM IDENTIFIED AS PROVIDING THE TRAINING DESCRIBED IN PROFESSOR HERIOT’S POST SAYS THAT HER UNIVERSITY IS NOT ONE OF ITS CLIENTS, AND THAT THE TRAINING DESCRIBED ABOVE APPEARS TO BE FROM A DIFFERENT PROVIDER THAN IT.

edh December 26, 2007 at 12:39 pm

Ask: Who wins as the result of all of this nonsense?

Answer: Follow the money!

Have any of these "diversity" trainers ever been held accountable and sued for negligence?

Dr. Ellen December 26, 2007 at 12:56 pm

In the museum I worked at, we had a Diversity Session entirely focussed on blacks. When I tried to suggest gender issues also counted, I got the usual withering "thank you for sharing" and things continued along the melanin continuum.

Strangely, I had no backlash when I failed to return after lunch for the remaining day and a half of mind-scouring.

JorgXMcKie December 26, 2007 at 1:18 pm

"a poor quality recording in which a manager’s reference to “Saint Nicholas” was misinterpreted as the N-word, created a furor)."

Maybe we should ban *ALL* words beginning with 'N' just in case.

Max December 26, 2007 at 1:33 pm

I've been subject to three different programs of this sort, by three different employers. Without exception, the content of these programs has been explicitly racist. But in fairness, it's been racist towards pretty much everyone.

What you realize is that Diversity Trainers are basically ignorant bigots who've been given sanction to promote their weird racist notions. If you took any of them, dressed them up in a John Deer hat and overalls, and had them speak with a cartoon southern accent, this would be immediately apparent.

Don December 26, 2007 at 1:49 pm

Several years ago I was forced to attend a diversity session. One of the exercises involved photos of non-white people dressed in street-gang attire, with scowls on their faces, and posed with clenched fists and the like. We were asked what our initial reactions were, then chastised for drawing conclusions based on mere appearances.

I approached the trainer during break and asked: "So you're saying if you came across a fat white man in a white robe with 'KKK' emblazoned on it you would withhold judgment?" She said, "I would think it was a man in a white robe … nothing more."

I expressed my astonishment. I used a two-syllable word that starts with B and ends in T.

I've not attended another diversity class since.

RKV December 26, 2007 at 1:51 pm

Psychiatry went through a similar moment with group therapy. It turns out that underqualified therapists did more damage than good.

Whitehall December 26, 2007 at 1:59 pm

I had to attend one such training sesson at a major California utility company when I worked there.

Near the end I stood up and pointed out that the bulk of the topics were highly political in nature and in effect were political re-education classes on the ratepayers' nickel. I wondered out loud if a Republican assemblyman would approve of the lessons.

My fellow employees applauded and that was the end of the sessions.

James C. Langford December 26, 2007 at 2:20 pm

Read the book, While Europe Slept" by Bruce Bawer, Broadway Books, 2006 to see what liberal blab genders when carried to idiotic ends. Sincerely

Peg C. December 26, 2007 at 2:35 pm

My company, a household name, mandates Diversity training annually for all employees. My attitude toward affirmative action actually changed and became extremely negative after years of this crap. They've discovered that employees treat Diversity training as a ludicrous and insulting joke so they've switched to feel-good boomer tripe like age discrimination and "non-controversial" diversity issues. I don't know anyone who takes this garbage seriously and it has actually hardened discriminatory attitudes, especially now that we have a lot of employees (especially contractors) overseas whose work ethic and language issues are huge barriers to getting anything accomplished. Even the libs I know (I'm in IT; hardware people tend to be conservative, software people tend to be liberal) treat Diversity training as a joke.

So many work remotely now (from home, mobile, or at customer sites) that it's all online now rather than in a townhall setting. The online stuff just dumbs everything down further. It's easier to race through and ignore, though.

We're actually measured on nonsense like this for our reviews. Amazing.

Maurice S. December 26, 2007 at 4:52 pm

I'd been asked to attend one of these seminars when I was working at a public university. I was one of two people in the room who qualified as a racial minority. This was honestly the most humiliating experience that I've ever had in a professional setting.

The other participants were junior faculty and graduate students. Many of them were as old as my kids. The whole gist of the presentation was that being black means you're too pathetic to get by in life and that compassionate white people with a special 'consciousness' have to look out for us. What was especially galling was that the moderator wanted to use my relationship with those kids to make them feel guilty for things that they'd never done – they'd certainly never treated me in the way that she wanted them to believe they had. I can see where these programs could cause more problems than they solve.

Brian December 26, 2007 at 11:20 pm

Diversity training is a joke. I once had to attend a seminar where the guy running did everything but call me and the other white males in the room a bunch of crackers. He did use the term redneck on several occassions, which is hilarious to me since I am from Philadelphia originally.

Once in law school, during a discussion on affirmative action, some do-gooder self-hating white liberal said that if it wasn’t for affirmative action, the law school would be all white. I asked her to tell me which students in the class wouldn’t be there without affirmative action, or, since she said the school would be all white without AA, could I just assume that every minority in the class wouldn’t be there.

As you would expect, I was the racist in the classroom, not the one who basically said all minorities are there through the grace of white people.

CJ December 27, 2007 at 2:32 am

Good comments all, but people don’t seem to get that companies are just doing this for lawsuit protection. If there was no harassment of businesses by the EEOC and similar state agencies then corporate legal departments wouldn’t be recommending these things. That’s why generally nobody cares if you walk out early on these sessions, as one commenter says she did; they’re just going through the motions to inoculate themselves against discrimination lawsuits. I work regularly in both Canada and the USA; although Canada is crawling with political correctness, “diversity training” is very rare. Why? Because there is no EEOC in Canada, no class-action discrimination lawsuits, no Briggs v. Duke, et cetera.

Spartee December 27, 2007 at 10:54 am

“Psychiatry went through a similar moment with group therapy. It turns out that underqualified therapists did more damage than good.”

Yeah, and phrenology was an excellent tool until all those underqualified hacks took over.

Some fads in professions are really dumb ideas no matter who employes them. It often takes the reductio ad absurdum of seeing people who cannot obscure their obtuse and useless methods behind fine words before the fads are blow apart.

Corporations know such training is crap. It is simply insurance against Jesse Jackson-style shakedowns of large corporations.

When it comes to any social science-spawned activity like therapy, diversity training, etc., I always ask if you can in any way measure the alleged positive outcome. My rule is if people promoting the activity cannot provide me a reasonably sane *measurable* indicator of social improvement resulting from their activity, they are probably charlatans looking for a paycheck.*

* That rule has a codicil for people who take it to the point of getting killed to demonstrate their committment to their suggested program (e.g., Ghandi, Jesus, MLK Jr.).

Kev December 27, 2007 at 12:30 pm

A colleague of mine who teaches at several community colleges went to a “sensitivity training” seminar (required, of course) at one of his schools. He said that the seminar leader actually told them that “being late to class is part of the African-American and Hispanic culture–and we should tolerate that.” Being a director of a music ensemble, where lateness isn’t tolerated from anybody, my colleague had to muster up quite a bit of restraint to not call B.S. on that one. I don’t know if I could have stayed silent for that one…

Mr. Fusion December 29, 2007 at 8:54 pm

About 15 years ago I was forced to attend a “seminar” on diversity. The “facilitators” were two black women, one about eight months pregnant and the other with a non-intelligible Jamaican accent.

At one point we were broken up into groups and given resumes about who we were to hire among a diverse group of resumes. After we reported the reasons of why we chose our specific candidate, we were ripped for our preconcieved notions regarding the failed candidates.

At this point I stopped the facilitator and mentioned her error. We were given a task with the tools she supplied. We performed that task in the discussion group she assigned. We disqualified people as we were instructed to do. In other words, she criticized us for playing her game her way. The resumes were disqualified not because of the people, but because of the qualifications. We never met the people, never talked to previous employers, and never knew more than the bare information presented in a sparse resume. Please don't suggest I'm a bigot because you rigged the game.

At this point I mentioned that if there were only the two facilitators applying for the job they would both be disqualified. The pregnant woman because she could not commit to a minimum 90 day obligatory attendance training period and the other because her accent was so strong mistakes could be made in verbal communications. If the women came back and could commit to the training period and the other took language lessons then I would definitely reconsider.

Then the pregnant facilitator tried telling us she could do anything any of us could do. Of course, she couldn't work on the factory floor but she could do anything in an office. Someone else asked if she could run a photocopier all day. After she said yes, she would, it was pointed out that photocopiers often emit fumes potentially hazardous to a fetus's health with long exposures.

Somehow they did not accept they would not be hired, even though technically qualified, because they could not do the job. It had nothing to do with their being women or black. It was at this point my being a white male became an issue.

At lunch I complained about being harassed because of my color to HR. There wasn't an afternoon session.

Peter Charnley. August 11, 2008 at 12:07 am

Although a world renowned and devout Christian himself, C.S.Lewis once remarked to a child who had sent him a letter complaining that she hated going to Sunday School because she was forced to go and found it boring – "I totally agree with you. All that you achieve by making it an obligation to feel is that you freeze feelings'.

I think, in the context of 'Diversity Training', Lewis's words are putting it very mildly indeed. Particularly when many of those who are being subjected to it are being dishonestly demonized from a blatantly hateful and extreme left wing perspective.

If you want to perpetuate division, resentment and loathing between people – demand, under threat, that they must not harbor such feelings. And tell lies about certain members of the human race in the process.

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