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Opinion Week 37

Don't Fix the Women: Keeping your D&I Programs Up-to-Date (and Staying Out of the News)

An outdated women's leadership program lands E&Y in the hot seat. How to keep it from happening to you.

Internal training programs rarely go viral...probably because no one is paying that much attention. But this week, a women’s leadership program at consultancy Ernst & Young did just that, by reportedly offering outdated and bias-reinforcing advice to up-and-coming women at the firm.

The controversy illuminated how good intentions are not enough when it comes to D&I programs. Companies not only need to invest in high-quality programming up-front, they must also commit to keeping programs current, accurate, and relevant to employee needs--or risk consequences ranging from loss of employee trust to public call-outs.

The E&Y program content, as reported in the Huffington Post, is sometimes downright embarrassing. A third-party consultant reportedly coached professional women at the firm to manicure their nails, project physical fitness, and otherwise conform to gender stereotypes in order to get ahead at the firm. Other advice, as described in the article, included:

  • Don’t directly confront men in meetings, because men perceive this as threatening. (Women do not.) Meet before (or after) the meeting instead.

  • If you’re having a conversation with a man, cross your legs and sit at an angle to him. Don’t talk to a man face-to-face. Men see that as threatening.

  • Don’t be too aggressive or outspoken.

The Internet has been quick to bash E&Y and the third-party consultant who developed the training..with some justification. It’s clear that much of the reported advice is dated, offensive, and reinforces stereotypes rather than focusing on how to create a bias-free workplace. While the training was probably cutting-edge fifteen years ago, the world has moved on from a “fix the women” approach. Current academic research suggests that the best way to create change is by addressing structural bias—acknowledging harmful stereotypes but not buying into or reinforcing them.

 If you are presenting outdated or wrong information, your employees will call you on it. If you are lucky, they will bring their concerns to you directly. If you’re not lucky, you will hear about it on Twitter, or a national news site.

The most interesting part of the controversy to me, though, is that the training was leaked to the HuffPo by an offended Ernst & Young employee. This immediately led me to a couple of thoughts:

  • Your employees are paying attention to how you talk about diversity and inclusion internally. Not just around gender but around all kinds of dimensions of diversity.

  • People are much more informed about D&I than they were even five years ago. Harvard Business Review covers diversity-related topics at least monthly, sometimes more frequently. Major news outlets like the New York Times, Financial Times and Washington Post have D&I-related beats. There are industry associations, podcasts, conferences, news lists and Facebook groups related to D&I that your employees are probably reading daily—I heard about the E&Y gaffe on three different online groups for women in tech within two days. And the commenters in those groups were not just griping because their feelings were hurt. They had cogent, evidence-based reasons for why the messaging was wrong.

  • Employee activism continues to gain steam. Employees increasingly expect ethical behavior from their company...and feel justified in taking their grievance public if they think the company is not responding quickly or appropriately. 

The implication for D&I education is this: If you are presenting outdated or wrong information, your employees will call you on it. If you are lucky, they will bring their concerns to you directly. If you’re not lucky, you will hear about it on Twitter, or a national news site.

Given these trends, what do you need to do as a company to make sure your diversity programs are an asset, not a liability? Three ideas come to mind:

Invest in high-quality programs: It is worth investing in quality up front. Whether it is a bespoke program or an online training offering, make sure that programs that touch D&I are grounded in the latest academic research, as well as proven industry best practices. Any education that makes claims about bias, or that makes recommendations targeted at specific demographic groups, must be based in sourced, objective third-party research. It must also focus on making systems more fair, not on fixing individuals. 

Refresh, re-evaluate and renew: When it comes to D&I, you cannot ‘set it and forget it.” Research and best practices in the field are evolving rapidly. If you are using a third-party provider, ask how, and how often, they refresh their content. Also, make sure you have a knowledgeable D&I professional—whether in-house or third-party—review all your programs annually to make sure they are still current, relevant, and meeting employee needs.

Invite feedback and respond appropriately: Ask for substantive feedback after every D&I program. Consider asking the question, “Is the program content relevant and current?” There are probably many people in your organization with a passion for D&I; if you engage them effectively, they can help you identify opportunities to improve early. As always, it’s important to accept any feedback gracefully and with appreciation, even if you decide not to act on it.

Getting D&I right can boost a company’s reputation, effectiveness and even the bottom line. Getting it wrong can be costly and embarrassing, as Ernst & Young learned this week. Mistakes around D&I topics are inevitable, but let’s make new, interesting ones, not repeat the avoidable mistakes of the past.

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