Diversity miseducation

Hans Bader at openmarket.org, the staff blog for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has a great post, Diversity Training Backfires, identifying a number of companies that found themselves being sued after they dragooned their unwilling employees into mandatory diversity training re-education sessions, which taught lessons other than the ones intended.

Bader writes:

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.

Hattip to Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit, whose link asked, “DOES MANDATORY “DIVERSITY TRAINING” JUST LEAD TO MORE LAWSUITS? I certainly hope so . . .”

Me too. They get what they deserve.

To be fair, employers often have no choice about offering such training and requiring employees to participate. Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, wrote about the sessions she attended on sexual and other workplace harassment, which are mandated by California law.

The villain of the harassment set-piece turns out to be a white guy who is angry about losing a promotion to a black woman, and sets out to harass her into not returning from a pregnancy leave.

This conflates two quite different issues. The harassment itself, as dramatized, is clearly unacceptable and nobody — this is a university workplace, remember — would seriously argue otherwise. But linking it to resentment over affirmative action is purely tendentious. An employee who believes he has been discriminated against — reversely or directly — has a fully protected legal right to complain about it, and the training material strongly suggests the opposite.


The message the employee is supposed to carry away is clear: Anyone who complains about any kind of inappropriate harassment or discrimination in the workplace must be treated with kid gloves (even if the complaint is silly), unless the complainant is a white guy concerned about “reverse” discrimination, in which case he’s “really out of line” and his conduct is “really offensive.”

It occurred to me that this training course is itself a rather blatant form of racial and sexual harassment. Employees taking the course are not so subtly being told, “Do not dream of complaining about race or sex discrimination if you are white or male.”

The question is, why is the training itself so incompetent — when it is is not downright counterproductive?

After years of attending sessions like this, I’ve come to think it’s because the people who seek out careers as diversity trainers are often people who are themselves bigots, and so assume everybody else must be too. Here are some stories about how I arrived at that conclusion.

The Minnesota Daily
The first diversity trainers I had to listen to came to the Minnesota Daily, around 1991. There were two of them, a white woman and a black man, and she treated him as barely more than an animate stage prop for her leading role. It made her preening claim of moral superiority all the harder to take seriously.

It is true that her unwilling audience was entirely white. But that was because our colleagues who were people of color were not required to attend. In fact she could scarcely have conjured up an audience more committed to “diversity” and less troubled by actual diversity. The Daily is an independent student paper, and its hiring policy at the time was in essence to hire every person of color who applied (which was not a large number as we were, after all, in Minnesota), and then complete the staff with the best-qualified white applicants, roughly a third of them. I think I was the only person who thought this was a really bad idea, at any rate the only person who was willing to say so.

The results were absolutely predictable. As the quarter wore on, the two-thirds of affirmative action hires who would never have been on staff if they were white crashed and burned. One quarter we had a Jayson Blair type, whose first story was a blockbuster about discrimination in the graduate program in English, marred only by the fact that the persecuted grad student he wrote about was entirely imaginary.

The paper summarily fired him, and the very next day he walked into a staff job at a large professional paper. I happened to draw the assignment of re-reporting the second story he was working on. This time the people he had quoted in his first draft were real. Only their quotes were fabricated.

Another minority reporter took exception to the way his story was edited, and threw a chair at the chief copy editor. Yet another quit in tears around Thanksgiving because she hadn’t yet finished a second story.

The inevitable effect of this on their white colleagues, most of them undergraduates in their first serious professional workplace, was devastating. They didn’t know about hiring preferences; all they had was the evidence of their own eyes that most of their minority colleagues couldn’t cut it. And the people who suffered the most were those who could, the people of color who would have been hired absent any preferences.

As typical as the trainer’s presentation was, she did come up with one so-far-unmatched idiocy. When she was growing up, she said, there was a lot of hostility between Lutherans and Catholics in her hometown.

Fortunately, she said, that’s no longer so much of a problem. “Nobody takes that religion stuff seriously any more,” she assured us.

Now that’s enlightened tolerance.

Contra Costa Times
Skip forward to a much ballyhooed diversity training session at the Contra Costa Times in California’s East Bay, in 1996 or so, maybe early 1997. (I worked at the Pleasanton office of the Valley Times, one of the CCT’s local editions.) This was a major corporate initiative, we were told, and we would be led down the paths of righteousness by a corporate bigwig from Knight-Ridder, which had recently bought the paper.

Nobody was thrilled about this, but we did understand that if corporate was flying in VIPs to instruct us, we had better pay attention.

In the event, though, the VIP had more pressing duties, and instead we got some hack who informed us that she had been a diversity consultant for 10 years and assured us that she would be teaching us how to be comfortable around people “who were different from us.”

Granted, she couldn’t win. First strike was what she wasn’t: important. Second was what she was: a hired gun for a disreputable enterprise. And third was what she said. Apparently unaware that just about everybody within sound of her voice was a lot more comfortable with diversity than she was, she proceeded to fling about stereotypes that would have gotten any of us fired.

For example, she said that putting together the first Unity conference was extremely difficult, because the Hispanic journalists’ group operated on “Mexican time.” (For those of you who don’t know about Unity, it’s a loose confederation of four ethnically separatist journalism groups who put on solidarity conventions whose main purpose is to charge exorbitant prices for recruiting booths so the employers can prove to any meddling federal bureaucrats who come snooping that they have indeed attempted to recruit underrepresented minorities. It’s a hustle.)

She’d been parachuted in from somewhere, maybe Miami, and evidently hadn’t given any thought to where she was. So when someone asked her about how gay and lesbian issues would be dealt with, she drew in a breath with that telltale hissing noise that means the speaker is discomfited. “That’s very difficult,” she said, adding that many companies didn’t cover it at all in their diversity training.

Remember, I said “East Bay.” This meeting was being held in Walnut Creek, which is maybe 30 minutes by BART from the Castro. I doubt that anyone present was troubled by that.

Rocky Mountain News
Rocky employees were required to attend diversity training sessions as a result of a court decision in a discrimination case which it had lost or settled, I forget which. The employee who brought the case had not worked in the newsroom, but in another division which by this time belonged to a different company. So there was considerable resentment that we, who had nothing to do with the employee or the case, were sentenced to collective punishment.

One of the trainers was a white woman in a bright pink suit, whom everyone afterward called “the Pink Nazi.” Her colleague was a black woman whose contribution to the session was to demonstrate how costly insensitivity was to a company, which she did by gloating about how much money she got in a successful discrimination suit.

Her other role was as a prop for the Pink Nazi, who demonstrated how not to behave by directing a stream of abuse toward her, including a prominent use of the n-word.

I’ve been working since 1957, and I had never before heard the n-word used in the workplace. (And exactly twice outside it.) What was this performance supposed to teach us? That it is acceptable to use racial slurs to abuse a black woman in public if you have a pure heart and lofty purposes?

The Pink Nazi also showed a couple of cringe-inducing videos, one of an outside salesman hitting on a secretary (unintended message, “anything short of this is permitted”) and another of a mildly effete young man being hassled by male co-workers who thought he was gay. At least I think that was the point; the Pink Nazi seemed to think it was an example of same-sex sexual harassment.

As Bader points out, relying on diversity consultants for legal advice is perilous.

How anyone can believe these heavy-handed attempts at indoctrination can improve workplace harmony entirely escapes me.

About linsee

Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
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2 Responses to Diversity miseducation

  1. jed says:

    I recall a story from not too long ago about a lawsuit brought successfully against a company (or maybe a University) over the racial stereotyping of white males in the diversity training. Just did a quick search and didn’t find it. Regrettably, I don’t find it amazing that there are a large number of people who think that we can all be one happy family, if we just demonize whites, and especially white males.

    I have, so far, been fortunate to avoid this sort of nonsense.

  2. Steve Oelrich says:

    I worked fairly closely with Linda the last six years of her tenure at the Rocky Mountain News. I thoroughly enjoyed our relationship and valued her many kindnesses and keen intellect. (Moreover, because my math abilities — like so many journalists — are so poor, her expertise in that area was greatly appreciated.) I, too, was subjected to the sensitivity training regimen Linda describes. Like her, I resented the training and the time it took from my other duties. (Linda neglected to note that we lost an entire half-day to this each year for three years.) But unlike her, perhaps, I found it had a useful aspect, providing as it did a window into a segment of society given over to a sense of aggrievement as tender as an exposed nerve. (Still, I appreciated that after the first session — I don’t think I learned much else that I hadn’t already been exposed to since infancy over the next two years.) Finally, I must say that I never heard anyone, much less “everyone,” refer to the white woman who was our trainer as “the Pink Nazi.” But maybe I just didn’t travel in the right circles.