A diversity training described by City of Austin employees as “hurtful” and “emotionally and professionally damaging” has prompted the city to prevent an employee assistance company from doing this type of training for staff again.
In August 2019, the Austin Transportation Department required its employees to attend the one-hour diversity and inclusion training. In all, 272 employees – more than three-fourths of the department – sat through the workshop, hosted by a trainer from Deer Oaks Employee Assistance Program.
The point of the training, in emails reviewed from department executives after the training, was to ensure a more inclusive workplace and that employees at ATD understand how to serve a diverse community.Some employees found the training useful. In handwritten evaluations filled out anonymously and obtained by KUT through a public information request one person wrote, “The presentation was good”; another scribbled “Great job!”
But others said the training, “Diversity in the Workplace: Maintaining an Inclusive Environment,” was horrible.
“This was by far the worst diversity training I have been a part of,” one employee wrote on the evaluation sheet. “I found it highly offensive, irresponsible, and embarrassing. This training is unacceptable.”
In a 13-page memo emailed to executives at the transportation department a week after the training, nearly two dozen unnamed employees detailed how the presentation was not only offensive, but also entirely inaccurate at times and “emotionally and professionally damaging.”
For instance, the trainer incorrectly defined race, twice. On the first day the training was offered, he characterized race as someone’s nationality; later he defined it as “the biological characteristics that a group of people share.”
The trainer also expressed surprise that someone might identify their own gender from a young age.
“There’s a new term I heard the other day. It’s ‘they-babies.’ Yeah, I guess parents are letting their kids decide their own gender,” employees remember the trainer saying.
Experts on race and gender who reviewed the synopsis of the training reacted with disbelief.
“As someone who does this type of training and who has taught about these issues for over 20 years, I am absolutely flabbergasted that a diversity and inclusion training could be so poorly executed,” Kevin Cokley, a professor in the College of Liberal Arts at UT Austin, wrote in an email. “This training was so bad that it almost appears to be a parody on diversity training gone wrong."
Another expert said the recounting of the training read as satire.
“It’s somehow horribly satirical how wrong everything is,” said Jamie O’Quinn, a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at UT Austin. She said conflating race with nationality is just wrong. “Obviously, if you live in the United States and that is your nation of origin, people of all races live in all countries; it just doesn't make any sense.”
KUT reached out to several ATD employees to talk about their experiences, but they either didn’t respond or said they didn’t feel comfortable talking about it. A department spokesperson “respectfully decline[d]” a request to interview ATD Director Robert Spillar about the training, but answered some questions by email.
Joya Hayes, director of the City of Austin’s Human Resources Department, said the trainer “made some major errors.” She found out about the training after an HR manager with ATD contacted her, saying employees were unhappy with the presentation.
“We had similar concerns and we were in alignment with some of the incorrect inaccuracies that we saw in the training,” Hayes told KUT.
In response, the HR Department has prohibited Deer Oaks from doing any additional trainings related to diversity and inclusion, and has asked department heads to not contact the company seeking this kind of training for employees.
As for how much the city paid for the training, it’s hard to put an exact number on it; in 2016, the city hired Deer Oaks for a variety of employee counseling and training services, and over a contract period of more than four years has paid the company a little more than $1 million.
Deer Oaks, which provides employee assistance services for other large agencies in the state including UT San Antonio and Texas Health and Human Services, did not respond to a request for comment.
While President Donald Trump has called diversity trainings “anti-American propaganda,” the City of Austin has placed value on trainings about diversity and inclusion in the workplace over the past several years.
In a 2017 report on institutional racism, a task force put together by Mayor Steve Adler recommended numerous times that local government employees receive diversity and inclusion training.
“We will not be able to address affordability in this city ... until we address race,” Adler said at a diversity training hosted by Leadership Austin a year later. “As leaders in this city, this is a conversation that you have to be having, because if you don’t have this conversation, then this community does not have this conversation.”
Hayes also emphasized the importance of these trainings.
“We take workplace culture very seriously,” she told KUT. “We try to be as proactive as we can to create and establish policies and a culture that ensures all employees are treated fairly and that they are respected.”
But city employees have felt disrespected in the past by inadequate trainings. Just as Austin welcomed its first majority-female City Council in 2015, the city held a seminar for staff on how to work with women.
The speakers made sexist remarks, telling city staff to be prepared for the women on the dais to ask a lot of questions and to shy away from considering financial arguments when making decisions. An assistant city manager who organized the workshop resigned several months after the training became public.
When asked how the city typically vets trainings, Hayes said the city does not routinely observe or monitor workshops offered by a contractor like Deer Oaks. She said before the ATD training, the city had never received complaints about the company's services.
While the bulk of the services Deer Oaks provides is one-on-one counseling for employees, Joya said, department heads can reach out for specialized training on various topics, including diversity and inclusion.
That’s just what ATD did. According to a department spokesperson, two employees with the transportation’s HR department organized the training. They spoke on the phone with the trainer and reviewed the presentation he would be giving.
But in the memo sent to higher-ups afterward, employees offered 30 bullet points describing how the training was "harmful."
At one point during his presentation, for example, the trainer encouraged employees to shout out derogatory terms to provide examples of words or phrases not to use in the workplace.
In another instance, the trainer asked employees to come up with examples of good inclusionary workplace rules. One ATD employee suggested the U.S. military's policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which prohibited gay and bisexual people from serving openly in the armed forces, was a fine example.
The trainer accepted this as a "correct answer.”
“A workplace that expects silence and hiding from some of its employees is clearly not one that values diversity and inclusion and cannot be the model for our organization,” employees wrote in their memo.
Employees demanded a slew of actions from the department and the city, including the creation of a position within the department focused entirely on equity issues. An ATD spokesperson said the city is in the process of defining an “equity position,” although this person would work across city departments.
A union representative for city staff said ATD employees “are satisfied with the progress” the department has made following the training, although KUT was not able to speak with ATD employees directly.
As for other actions ATD has taken, a spokesperson said it plans to create a group of employees to advise leadership on equity issues and appointed a staff member to evaluate equity within the department.
Cokley said when a company hosts a bad diversity training for its employees, it’s imperative they acknowledge the wrong.
“They should communicate that they've heard the concerns, they recognize the concerns to be serious and that they are doing everything within their power to make sure that it does not happen again,” he said, “and that they offer the type of quality diversity training that is warranted and needed.”
It appears the city’s trying to do just that.
After a years-long effort, City Council earlier this year approved a contract with a Maryland-based consultant to create and provide an implicit bias and cultural competency training specific for city employees.
A spokesperson for ATD said the department contributed $100,000 of its budget to the $900,000 contract, and that department employees will be some of the first to receive this new training, likely in January.
But, Hayes said, training can go only so far.
“We’re looking at other initiatives. You're not going to change the culture for good by one class here and one class there,” she said. “It's about a systematic approach of changing how you do business and how we operate. I'm really excited that this is one of many initiatives that will move us in the right direction.”
Got a tip? Email Audrey McGlinchy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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