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Of Course DEI Programming Should Be Seen As Psychological Interventions And Held To The Appropriate Standards
A sad story offers some lessons for an apparently shrinking industry.
Two noteworthy articles about workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion programming were published on Friday.
The first ran in The Wall Street Journal and was headlined “The Rise and Fall of the Chief Diversity Officer.” You can probably guess what it’s about from the headline; it explains how after a post-George-Floyd-murder surge in the hiring of so-called CDOs — the percentage of S&P 500 companies with a CDO jumped from under 50% in 2018 to about three-quarters in 2022 — these workers are now being laid off, and the hiring climate appears to have cooled considerably. Overall, companies are simply souring on this position.
The article, which is written from a fairly pro-CDO perspective, mostly attributes this trend to diminishing interest on the part of upper management in actually pursuing diversity goals. But it doesn’t touch the question of whether CDOs actually accomplish anything. And as someone who has written critically of popular DEI interventions both in a recent-ish New York Times article and in my book, I can’t help but wonder whether that might be part of the question here: “We’re paying this person $130,000 a year, but what exactly do they do?”
I’m also curious whether, in some instances — and I’m basing this on the research and reporting I’ve done on this subject — it turned out that these CDOs were bringing ideas with them that were far more trouble than they were worth. Indeed, the article mentions “obstruction” and a “lack of buy-in” on the part of management, but doesn’t really go into much detail. All the stated possibilities for why this skepticism is occurring are pretty friendly to CDOs.
Which brings me to the second, much sadder article, this one from Canada’s National Post: “Toronto principal bullied over false charge of racism dies from suicide.” It’s a very tragic story centering on the 60-year-old Richard Bilkszto, a longtime Toronto educator who had focused on older (18+) students in particular.
According to his friends and family members, Bilkszto suffered a mental health collapse after he was accused of racism, in front of his peers, during a training facilitated by something called the KOJO Institute. Bilkszto’s infraction? He said that he disagreed that Canada was more racist than the United States, and that he thought the nation was worthwhile in certain ways. “For the rest of the training session, and throughout a follow-up training session the week after, facilitators repeatedly referred to Bilkszto’s comments as examples of white supremacy. The experience was humiliating — particularly because Bilkszto placed a great emphasis on equality and anti-discrimination during his career.”
The article continues:
Instead of offering support to Bilkszto and protection in these training sessions, the school board distanced itself from him. One colleague, who has since been made an education director in Hamilton, thanked the facilitator for “modelling the discomfort.”
A day after the second training session, Bilkszto fell into a mental health crisis so bad that he had to spend more than a month away from work — for which he won a successful workers’ compensation claim for lost earnings. Shortly after his leave began, his association of education administrators asked the board to investigate the bullying incident, but the board refused. When Bilkszto returned to work, the TDSB [Toronto District School Board] further refused to reinstate him to the role he was in prior to taking leave; it also revoked a work contract he had been awarded for the upcoming year. Finally, the board disinvited him from attending a graduation ceremony.
As a last resort for accountability, Bilkszto launched a lawsuit against TDSB administrators (TDSB launched a subsequent lawsuit against KOJO Institute, but later told me it planned to discontinue that claim).
The KOJO Institute responded to Bilkszto’s death Friday morning: “We recently learned of the passing of Mr. Richard Bilkszto. We offer our condolences to his loved ones and colleagues during this difficult time.”
We always need to be careful with how we talk about suicide. At the risk of repeating myself, it is a complicated, overdetermined phenomenon. Suicide experts discourage reporters from drawing straight, bright lines between a particular setback and a completed suicide. “Avoid reporting that a suicide death was caused by a single event, such as a job loss or divorce, since research shows no one takes their life for a single reason, but rather a combination of factors,” says the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in its guidelines. “Reporting a ‘cause’ leaves the public with an overly simplistic and misleading understanding of suicide, and promotes the myth that suicide is the direct result of circumstances and is not preventable.”
We’ll never know the precise causes of Richard Bilkszto’s suicide, but it doesn’t seem as though anyone involved is denying the fact that the KOJO Institute training had a serious negative effect on him. And in a certain sense, this is seen as a feature, not a bug, of certain types of trainings — the point really is to instill discomfort in (white) participants. As I wrote in my Times column, many contemporary DEI trainings “often seem geared more toward sparking a revolutionary reunderstanding of race relations than solving organizations’ specific problems.” There’s an intense, confrontational element to some of them — I don’t know whether the KOJO Institute’s trainings draw on the “white fragility” framework created by Robin DiAngelo, but DiAngelo’s approach leans very heavily on the idea of calling out white employees, in front of their colleagues, for their alleged racial sins. (If you doubt this, listen to this in-depth interview Katie Herzog conducted with someone who endured a monthslong version of one of these trainings.)
In my column, I also noted that “any psychological intervention may turn out to do more harm than good. The psychologist Scott Lilienfeld made this point in an influential 2007 article in which he argued that certain interventions — including ones geared at fighting youth substance use, youth delinquency, and PTSD — most likely fell into that category.”
My argument, then and now, is that these sorts of DEI interventions are, very obviously, psychological interventions. What else do you call something that is designed to change the way people think and act? And if they’re psychological interventions, of course they should be subjected to certain standards; perhaps first and foremost, their advocates should be able to assure institutional decision-makers that whatever else they do or don’t accomplish, they won’t cause harm.
But we don’t have that data, because almost none of these programs are formally, rigorously evaluated. I may sound like I’m beating a dead horse here, and I understand that at a certain point I come across as a nerd, but until you have evidence a program works, you don’t have any evidence a program works. It doesn’t matter how glossy the brochure or how impressive the website is. I understand that CEOs were desperate to do something to respond to societal and employee demand in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. But this is a rather undercooked industry, and until it adopts better standards, it will be hard to shed all that many tears over its contraction.
Questions? Comments? Diversity trainings that totally work, and no you don’t have evidence per se but just like trust you? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Image: “Low angle view of group of people in circle and holding their fists together during a group therapy session. People with fist put together during support group session.”