White-Male Diversity Training: 5 Mistakes

April 8, 2015 5:41 pm

By Barbara Frankel

Photo by Shutterstock

An increasing number of companies are aiming their diversity training at white men, especially senior executives and middle managers. While the emphasis on inclusion of white men is critical to the success of D&I initiatives, there are several critical mistakes companies have made that can alienate white men or sabotage your efforts.

We interviewed five companies about diversity training for white men – PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ameren, and three that asked not to be named.

All these companies were selected because they have had outreach programs to white men. PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ameren have had particular D&I success because of the leadership of their organizations, according to 2015 DiversityInc Top 50 data. PwC, led by Chairman and Senior Partner Bob Moritz, has had a strong trajectory in moving women to the top levels. Ameren, led by Chairman, President and CEO Warner Baxter, has been able to engage male (mostly white) engineers in its D&I efforts more than any other tech company we’ve seen.

Here’s their advice about what not to do:

1. Don’t start with the negative or the accusatory. 

One company told us about a “training program” that started with a “friendly” discussion about why white men should feel guilty and ashamed about slavery and racial inequities. It was, in the words of this company’s chief diversity officer, “a miserable failure.”

By contrast, another chief diversity officer told us that in an intensive training planned for her CEO and executive team (mostly white men) over several days “race is the last issue we get to. We start by establishing trust and then going in deeper and deeper.”

Another diversity executive put it this way: “This is not about white male guilt because that causes a person to become defensive.”

And a third said simply, “Treat white men as part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

2. Don’t just focus on numbers and bypass the personal.

The prevailing theory in reaching white men has been to stick to facts and figures and always link D&I to business success. While that is important – for everyone — more companies are seeing the need to make the training very personal for white men so they relate to it on a visceral level.

“The idea is to spend time listening and try to hear and see the world as it is, as opposed to who we are,” said Chris Brassell, Director, U.S. Office of Diversity at PricewaterhouseCoopers, No. 5 on the DiversityInc Top 50.

Brassell has led a ground-breaking program that gets white men, from the most senior levels down, to “talk about what’s on their minds as it relates to D&I. It is about opening up your filters.”

There is certainly merit to showing D&I’s value to business goals, noted Marty Lyons, Chief Financial Officer of Ameren, and a white-man-and-diversity success story.

While working with the utility’s Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Sharon Harvey Davis, Lyons began to see the connection between diversity and providing superior customer value.

“There’s a tension between shareholder value and customer value. They only way to improve that is to consistently improve customer value. D&I is the glue that holds that together,” he said.

But for him, the personal journey that started at the urging of his former Chairman, President and CEO Tom Voss. It involved learning to see beyond differences, especially early on with LGBT people and people with disabilities.

Lyons became involved with the employee-resource group for people with disabilities. “Through that involvement, I was able to continue to help that group establish a strategic vision for improving recruiting people with disabilities.”

3. Don’t leave out top leaders.

Some companies shy away from “forcing” their top leaders to participate in diversity training. Big mistake. Without the support of the senior level, many people in the company – especially white men – will decide this isn’t a high priority.

It also helps the top leadership develop a diverse pipeline of high potentials from under-represented groups. “We are challenging the tendency to think of protégés, of people we want to sponsor who don’t look like us,” said Brassell.

PwC also encourages its top leaders to be thoughtful about language and their sources of information. Being exposed to diverse backgrounds and viewpoints helps senior leaders be more comfortable with difference in the workplace.

“They explore challenging their own blind spots. They will have a conversation with someone and say ‘Now I see their point of view,’ “ Brassell said.

At Ameren, the involvement of senior leaders has been crucial, said Harvey Davis. “They see our leaders (like Lyons) get on board. They set an example of what it looks like to lead around diversity,” she said, citing former Voss and and Baxter.

4. Don’t forget to use your employee-resource group.

Ameren’s Lyons had his real breakthrough with D&I through his involvement with the disabilities employee-resource group.

“We really look to include white men in our ERG groups around focus areas of interest to them,” said Harvey Davis. Among Ameren’s most popular employee-resource groups for white men are the veteran’s and generational groups.

5. Don’t rush it. Getting white men buy-in takes time.

“They try to rush it. They want to turn people into diversity practitioners overnight,” said one chief diversity officer. “We need to meet them where they are. For some people, this is new for them.”

And if you do have a white man who “isn’t getting it,” be clear about their long-term future with the company. “Our position was that if you work at Ameren, you don’t have to change your views but you do have to sit through training. And you’ve got to be on board with diversity,” Harvey Davis said.