How to make anti-racism training work

Many employers are keen to offer some kind of anti-racism training, but they may not get it right

How to make anti-racism training work

Accompanying the rise of the Black Lives Matter move-ment has been a rise in anti-racism training. Employers looking to show they care have eagerly run virtual workshops or webinars to enlighten employees and hopefully make their workplace a better one.

Coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, people are frustrated and raising their concerns, says Wyle Baoween, CEO and senior facilitator at HRx Technology in Vancouver, who has seen a major jump in inquiries for his business.

“Also, I think leaders, really, senior leaders, are thinking about race. It's the conversation they have with their family, with their friends, they see it every day. And they're like, ‘I want to know more about discrimination, systemic racism, and we need help.’”

Through anti-racism training, people can better understand how some groups have faced barriers for a very long time, in terms of wealth, access to opportunity and access to power, he says.

"That is leading to them now being marginalized; they are less represented and in positions of power. They make less money, less than the average Canadian income [and] they have less access to opportunity. They're facing barriers to education and health and the justice system and policing. So, you want to make people understand: Why is that happening now?"

Despite the good intentions, this type of training doesn’t always work. It may perpetuate stereotypes or build up resentment among staff. It may be more about a company trying to look good than trying to make real changes or it might lead to short-term gains instead of long-term ones.

Plus, it’s a complicated exercise that’s about changing people’s attitudes and behaviours, not just their skills or knowledge.

Training is like medicine — if it's used in the right way, like a prescription, and the conditions are right, “it will lead to greater impact, it will open people's eyes, it will make them more committed, make them understand and could lead to greater change,” says Baoween.

“But if it's applied in the wrong way, with no thinking or no guidance of how to apply it, it could really lead to bad results, which, to be honest with you, is the common result.”

If employers are going to make the investment, there are a variety of best practices they should consider, say the experts.

Why it doesn’t always work
A lot of organizations rush into the training — whether it's unconscious bias training or anti-racism training or anti-oppression training — and don’t really do an analysis of: What is the problem we’re trying to solve? Oftentimes, it’s just about checking a box or appeasing people, says Hamlin Grange, principal consultant at DiversiPro in Toronto.

“There's no real thought in terms of ‘What is the problem we're trying to solve?’ And, so, the training amounts to nothing more than just a muddied mirror theory — you figure you throw enough mud at a mirror, something is going to stick eventually. And, invariably, not enough of it sticks.”

Another problem? People go back to the organization after the training but all the systems in place don't hold people accountable for their actions and some actually reward people for bad behaviour, he says.

“That reward can be simply the silence of the organization that does nothing about it... ‘Nobody says I couldn't do it, so I guess it's OK.’”

It takes much more than just training to have an impact on how an organization operates, says Marie-Hélène Budworth, associate professor of HRM at York University in Toronto.

“Training alone is not a solution to racist practices or to any type of bias or diversity challenge that exists within an organization; one training session — or even a few training sessions — will not solve any problem,” she says. “In the absence of support, in the absence of other initiatives and in the absence of a concerted effort, training alone will do very little within an organization.”

How to make the training work
To start, every employer should acknow-ledge that it has a racism problem, says Budworth. “This is a broader societal issue and our organizations are just reflections of our society. Even the most well-meaning and the most socially motivated organizations will still have problems and can always benefit [from making improvements].’”

An organization should then think about what it hopes to achieve, says Budworth, and that can mean asking questions such as: “Were we hoping to see differences in how people are hired here?... Are we starting to see more diverse applications from different places, from different institutions, from different people? Who gets hired and who gets promoted?”

It’s so important to understand the motivation behind the training, says Grange.

“Do you have systemic racism within the organization built into your policies, programs and practices?” he says. “You need to do some front-end work, substantive front-end work to really make it effective and to really make it stick for people. [Otherwise], it just comes across as performative.”

It’s also recommended that employers assess their learners, he says.

“If individuals are at a stage where they're not even curious about cultural differences, the training that you would give that individual is very different from someone who has a much more complex and sophisticated engagement with differences,” says Grange, so it’s important to bring a training modality into the organization instead of one size fits all.“

Too often, the same training is given to everyone in the same room, and people walk out of there, out of the room, with mixed kind of reactions. And some people get a lot out of it, [while] others get nothing out of it.”

It’s also advisable to get a good sense of the leadership, he says.

“A lot of leaders don't have the capacity to lead in an EDI [equity, diversity and inclusion] environment, so how are you going to prepare them to do that? Putting up a few posters around the workplace and having leaders send out tweets and the next hashtag — that is not leading.”

Effective change is also about inclusive design, says Baoween, as some industries are more traditional while others are more open and progressive, and some learners are from younger generations versus older generations.

“When you design the training, you need to be aware of that. I call it inclusive design — meet people where they are.”

Plus, it’s about tailored training, so training for a construction company will look different than that for a tech company, just because of the way they work and the demographics and services, he says.

“You want the training to really be relevant to the participants and their background.”

The experience of the facilitator is also important, says Baoween.“

Some discussions are sensitive; some people raise interesting questions about defending the police or Black Lives Matter versus ‘all lives matter.’ And you need an experienced facilitator to be able to manage the conversation and make people have a really good discussion for constructive discussion versus a heated discussion that leads to resentment and anger and frustration.”

Measuring success
Another important element to a success-ful anti-racism training is gauging its success. If, for example, your aim was to change the experience of people within the organization, that can be measured, says Budworth.

“You can either survey or have focus groups... If you're in a large organization, you may even already have groups that have formed that that are intended to support different demographic groups. And you might ask them, over time: ‘What are your impressions of this organization and how it supports you and how it serves you? What were you trying to accomplish? And did you do it?’”

Another measure would be your processes, says Grange.

“Are you hitting those benchmarks on the EDI benchmark that you've set for yourself, in terms of how you hire, where you look for new talent, what are you doing to build a pipeline internally?” he says.

“And success is not necessarily going out to the shop floor and counting the number of dark brown faces you see on the floor. That's not what the success should be. Because you can have a lot of diversity with very little inclusion.”

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