Diversity training: How fire departments can do it better

Key reasons diversity training misses the mark – and steps to make it worth the time


Diversity training is often a waste of time – but it doesn’t have to be.

For several decades, I have been developing and teaching classes on diversity or, as it is sometimes now called, DEI: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. I know from experience that much of the training on this topic, regardless of good intentions, misses the mark. And yes, I include some of my own classes in this assessment.

Why we miss the mark

"Doing diversity training right won’t solve all your problems, but it can make a real difference. Doing it wrong is just a waste of time," writes Willing. (Photo/Getty Images)

There are specific reasons why much of what is offered as diversity training is ineffective. Here are a few of them, plus ways that we can do better.

Lack of focus: Diversity is a broad subject and can encompass many different topics. It might include better decision-making strategies or anti-racism training, just to name two. The focus of any training initiative must be defined. I have been asked to present “diversity training” when what the organization was really looking for was training on harassment prevention. These things are not mutually exclusive, but given a limited amount of time, you can only do so much. Focused training with clear goals and objectives is more likely to succeed.

Wrong venue/delivery format: I’ve seen diversity training take place in a large auditorium with hundreds of people in the audience. Certainly, a charismatic presenter can make some good points in such a venue, but it is also a recipe for disengagement among those who may need the training the most. Likewise, in the age of COVID-19, much classroom-type training has been moved to online formats. For example, I am frequently told that fire departments meet their yearly goal of presenting anti-harassment training through an online PowerPoint-type class with a brief test at the end. Again, some benefit can occur in this format, but when there is no opportunity for questions to be asked and answered, no place for discussion, and no accountability beyond an easily gamed test at the end, the benefit is minimal.

The information presented isn’t relevant to the specific organization: There will always be general concepts and facts that bear repeating, but to really make a difference with training, it must have relevance to those who participate. What challenges are they facing? What recent incidents have occurred? What changes are anticipated? When developing training for any group, I always ask to talk to people within the organization who represent a variety of views and experiences. The few times I have been denied this opportunity have been my least successful training efforts.

Wrong trainer/facilitator: The best diversity trainers are inside-outsiders, people who have knowledge of the culture and practices of the organization they are working with, but who are also neutral third parties with no history or loyalties to individuals or groups within the organization. Fire departments often err on both ends of this equation. They may bring in an outside trainer, perhaps from a corporate background, who may be knowledgeable about diversity issues generally, but who is mostly clueless about the reality of working in emergency services. Or they might select an inside person to develop and deliver the training – someone who knows the organization well but also carries personal baggage and history that may undermine the message.

Training lacks participation and accountability: Diversity training should be a conversation, not a lecture. People need to be put in situations, such as small groups for problem-solving, where it is impossible to fade into the background. Sessions should be kept small enough that the facilitator can make eye contact with everyone present. I personally like to cap my classes at no more than 30 people. There must be continual opportunities for questions to be asked and answered and for different points of view to be expressed in a safe environment. Scenarios presented for problem-solving should be nuanced rather than obvious, requiring the weighing of options rather than trying to come to one right answer.

Diversity classes should be diverse: Department members who fill different roles – inspectors, dispatchers, company officers, chiefs, paid, volunteer – are often segregated during training. To really get the benefit from diversity training, make the classes diverse and create opportunities for those in different roles to directly interact with one another. It is good to recognize that some department members have different needs, and it is great to develop training specifically for them. But when department-wide training is given, make sure the sessions are mixed by rank and function.

Unrealistic expectations: Bringing in a diversity trainer for a two-hour class will not solve all your organization’s problems. Problems related to diversity may be generational within an organization, requiring deep cultural change. A good trainer will understand that their role is to start the conversation, provide people with tools to better have that conversation, and create a sense of urgency and accountability in addressing key issues.

Diversity training must stress the importance of leadership: Some organizations do training as a kind of insurance policy in case a complaint is filed, but this misses the point. If you really want things to get better, everyone in the organization needs to understand their own leadership potential and obligation. Only when diversity is seen as a critical component of good decision making, and as an integral part of the organizational mission, will change really happen.

Worth the time

There are good diversity trainers out there who understand the importance of each of these points in developing training. They will all have a different style and focus in the work they do. Take the time to find a provider that meets the individual needs of your organization. Encourage involvement of members at all levels of the organization for setting goals and expectations with any training initiative. Doing diversity training right won’t solve all your problems, but it can make a real difference. Doing it wrong is just a waste of time.

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