Why DEI Training Still Has Value in the Stop WOKE Era

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

August 22, 2022

If you were a fan of TV's The Office, you undoubtedly saw the way the show highlighted rather extreme examples of bias, whether unconscious or otherwise, through Dunder Mifflin's crude and bumbling regional manager, Michael Scott.

In the unforgettable "Diversity Day" episode, Michael tries to show that he loved and included all races and ethnicities but instead rather hilariously misses the mark as he begins the training session by saying, "Let's go around, and everybody name a race you're sexually attracted to."

All joking aside, it's rather unlikely most diversity trainings would stoop to that level. But the diversity episode is indicative of the rather low esteem with which some employees view these trainings and how they can be ineffectual.

Part of the problem is too many employers expect training to have a magical impact, according to DEI people and culture leader Cynthia Owyoung, author of  All Are Welcome: How to Build a Real Workplace Culture of Inclusion That Delivers Results.

"You cannot implement diversity training in isolation and expect it to reduce bias in the workplace on its own," said Owyoung. "It can't be one-and-done training. You have to regularly check in with folks."

You cannot implement diversity training in isolation and expect it to reduce bias in the workplace on its own. It can't be one-and-done training. You have to regularly check in with folks.

Cynthia Owyoung, DEI People and Culture Leader

That means conducing regular climate surveys to gauge effectiveness to get the pulse of employees on such questions as:

  • Are leaders actually being inclusive?
  • Is this training accomplishing something?
  • Are ERGs getting support from the highest levels?
  • Do leaders respond effectively to employee DEI concerns?
  • Is there a fair and equitable promotion process?

But as for the trainings themselves, how far can they really go? Florida's Stop WOKE Act, which took effect July 1, has called that into serious question before a federal judge temporarily blocked its enforcement on August 18.

The Florida measure banned workplace trainings from teaching that anyone is "inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously," or that anyone is oppressed based on their race, color, sex or national origin. While the law does not prohibit DEI training, it has teeth by giving employees the right to sue if they believe their employer's training violated the Act.

Some employers may avoid DEI training altogether because of the risks that may exist under the Florida Stop WOKE Act if it remains in place, cautioned employment attorney Jonathan Segal, managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute, which conducts training for HR professionals.

Cynthia Owyoung agrees that the measure, and other proposals like it, undeniably impacts the conversation. But, she urged employers to stand firm. "When you avoid the issues, [training is] less likely to be impactful," said Owyoung. "The crux is who are we fighting for, the majority and their comfort or the minority?"

Regarding the risk of whether employers will be targeted by the Stop WOKE Act should it be reinstated, or some similar measure in the future, the risks from watering down DEI conversations may be even greater.

As Segal observed upon the Stop WOKE Act's passage, "Nothing in the Act should prevent employers from hitting hard on the importance of taking steps to disrupt bias and increase inclusion because there are risks in not providing DEI training, both legal and practical. For example, unconscious bias hurts not only its objects but also employers who may lose the benefit of their talent with record-low unemployment."

Owyoung added that no one is ever immune from any kind of lawsuit. The key is to continue talking about race, gender and national origin but to do so in a way that's empathetic and not exclusive. "No one goes into training trying to stoke the fire and create tension," said Owyoung. Provided it's done appropriately and as part of a broader DEI strategy, she observed that the value of training still outweighs the risk.

And make it effective above all, she said, by designing interactivity to ensure you grab people's attention and keep them engaged.

While your organization is undoubtedly in a better place than the folks at Dunder Mifflin's Scranton office, many employers can struggle to hit the right note with diversity training. And the Stop WOKE Act briefly created an additional hurdle for companies with Florida employees. But for organizations that truly value DEI, good training is an important cog in positioning a business for success.

Additional Resources

DEI: 5 Key Issues Facing Employers

Improving Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Employee Survey Form