I participated in my first corporate diversity training about ten years ago.  I remember it well.  My company had hired a production studio to create films depicting “real life” diversity and inclusion scenes.  Each scene would teach a different lesson about diversity – the training covered gender, age, race, religion, etc.  We even hired a troop of “diversity educators”/actors to come to the office and perform live for employees.  It was actually quite entertaining – part diversity training, part live theatre.

The training has stuck with me over the years.

One of the things that has stuck with me the most was how completely over the top the scenes were.  Each scene would start out largely the same in a normal office environment.  Employees would be in a meeting or sitting around talking about something completely benign.  Then, all of the sudden, the scene would turn on a dime and someone would say something grossly inappropriate.  In the film version of the training – they would even change the background music – in the same way the music changes when the villain appears in a horror movie.

A few examples from the training:

  • Colleagues were preparing for a work dinner with clients – everything is going fine until one of the male colleagues tells a female coworker to wear a low-cut shirt (cue evil music).
  • Employees are at an office birthday party that looks totally friendly, just a few younger employees celebrating the birthday of an older colleague – then they cut to the cake that says, “over the hill” (evil music again).

At the time, I remember laughing at some of these scenes – the behavior they displayed was just so obviously inappropriate.  In hindsight, it makes me think that perhaps the training was intended more to shield the corporate entity from legal liability rather than actually educate employees about diversity and inclusion.

There are, of course, incidents of gross misconduct – similar to what was depicted in the training – and those incidents should be treated with the seriousness they deserve.  However, in my experience, the real threat to diversity and inclusion is much more subtle.  Little things that, taken alone, don’t even seem that bad – until you look at them through the lens of diversity and inclusion and how they make other people feel.

Let me provide a few vignettes to describe what I’m talking about.

  • As a male, you’re out to dinner with male client at a conference. The client laments that he wishes there were more attractive women at the conference.
  • As a male, you’re making a big presentation at a board meeting. After the board meeting you and two female colleagues are talking with a male board member outside the board room.  Right before the meeting resumes, you and the board member continue the conversation into the men’s restroom.
  • You’re at a client lunch with four people – two people spend the majority of the time talking about how they are from the same wealthy suburb (or attended the same elite school).

These small diversity and inclusion infringements typically wouldn’t be looked at as crimes in themselves.  When they happen, there is no evil music playing and it’s not totally obvious that an offense has taken place.  In some of these cases, I’m not even sure how to properly respond to them.  But these little things make people feel left out, discriminated against, stereotyped or otherwise excluded.  Taken in aggregate these offenses maintain the status quo and prevent all people from feeling – and performing – their best.  If you pay close attention, it’s shocking how often these situations occur.

A few months ago, Verna Myers came to speak at AppNexus. She provided some advice I thought was really important.  Her point was – the best thing we can do is be aware of diversity and inclusion, talk about it, and make sure we are actually communicating with each other.  Equally important: don’t turn the offender into a villain – often they are good people, just unaware of how their actions affect others.  The more we talk, the more we learn – and that is how we fight for a more diverse and inclusive world, one small step at a time.

Real Diversity and Inclusion is Subtle
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