Last year, former President Donald Trump issued an executive order that effectively chilled diversity training efforts across the country, as compliance professionals feared the consequences of implementing programs that violated it. As soon as President Joe Biden took office this year, he promptly overturned the action. Although this decision itself was critical for compliance professionals, the fact that the order came to exist at all and the public’s reaction to it offers valuable insight into the current moment.
The executive order hindered affirmative action compliance efforts and revealed difficult truths in the process — perhaps the greatest being how many people feel victimized by affirmative action programs and nondiscrimination laws and how many feel alienated by their goals. As a compliance professional, it’s your job to talk with employees and dismantle misconceptions so that everyone embraces the goals of diversity training.
How to Talk About Diversity and Inclusion After Controversy
As soon as Trump signed the executive order, federal agencies, federal courts, and academic institutions resisted it. Still, others supported it — and state legislators even modeled legislation after it. The fact that the order was signed at all proves that a number of people resist the notion of nondiscrimination. Specifically, some people dislike diversity training and affirmative action compliance efforts because they fear something will be “taken” from them.
Addressing this issue requires effective communication from compliance professionals. Most people who are unsure of the goals of diversity training haven’t spoken with the right people. Lasting change requires reaching out to doubtful employees to help them find the right voices, the right messages, and understand that the principles of equality and nondiscrimination benefit everyone on a practical level.
The goal of diversity training should always be to enlighten, so it’s important to be sensitive to people who don’t understand the importance of affirmative action compliance. Although these concepts are not new to you, they might be earth-shattering concepts to others. Your job is to change the dominant culture, which isn’t easy, as many people are resistant to change. Avoid coddling, but if someone emerges from a training session feeling shamed or mocked, talk through those feelings with them and see how you can move forward together.
Now that the order has been rescinded, keep refining your diversity training program. Although it’s easy to go back to business as usual and write the order off as an anomaly, resist the urge to do so. Many diversity trainings and affirmative action programs fail, despite roughly 75% of Americans supporting diversity and inclusion efforts in the workplace. This means that you must gain better buy-in from your target audience — those resistant to your efforts to begin with.
Charting a New Course in Diversity and Inclusion Discussions
Reintroducing diversity and inclusion training after the executive order comes with a few challenges, but it’s a necessary step in the path toward an equitable workplace. Here are a few ways compliance professionals can work with people who feel threatened by changing times:
1. Review your compliance and diversity training.
No, you do not have to analyze your program under the lens of the executive order, but look at your overall messaging. Is it inclusive or exclusive? The overarching message should be that no matter who you are, you are “one of us.” This requires identifying, recognizing, and confronting resistance in a way that is honest, yet compassionate.
2. Do not assign resistance to one side of the political spectrum.
Inequality exists on either side of the political scale. People too far on one side can be just as problematic as those on the other side. The answer to discrimination and division is not more discrimination and division. Plus, you will lose credibility if you only attack one side of the problem.
3. Be skeptical of trendy approaches.
Right now, diversity and inclusion are top of mind, and conversations surrounding the issue are important steps toward progress. Remember, though, that a lot of these ideas are not fully formed yet. Be careful before adopting the latest race relations theory, for example. These initiatives take time, and any “miracle cures” should be approached with at least some skepticism.
4. Incorporate meaningful opportunities for feedback.
Finally, find ways to offer opportunities for people to give feedback about your training programs. If you say your “door is open,” make sure it actually is. Constantly evaluate how people receive your messages so that you can learn how to effectively talk about diversity and inclusion. If you don’t help others in this process, you’re not a true educator. Evolve your messages so that they inspire lasting change.
Now that we’re recovering from the impact of Trump’s executive order and finding a way forward in the wake of its rescission, compliance professionals can start to build more inclusive workplaces based on what we’ve learned. The rescission of the order was not the end of the work. On the contrary, the work has just begun. Evaluate your training programs in light of lessons learned and move forward with better insight into how to bring people together, moving toward the same goal.