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In Defence of Diversity Training

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The most recent edition of Harvard Business Review is devoted mainly to diversity issues. The main article entitled “Why Diversity Programs Fail” might lead some to mistakenly conclude that diversity programs, especially diversity training, simply do not work. But in fact, the thesis of the authors is simply that some diversity programs – and some types of training – achieve their objectives more effectively than others; hardly a notion that anyone who has worked in the diversity area would contest.


To be clear, the authors do not quarrel with the two basic propositions that underpin most diversity initiatives. These are: diverse and inclusive workplaces are better than those which lack these qualities; and having a truly diverse workplace usually does not happen fortuitously. Achieving diversity and inclusion requires a planned, concerted and sustained effort.

Against this backdrop, it is of course, desirable, if not essential, that the efficacies of various types of diversity programs are measured. We at Symmetra accept that progress and change must be monitored and measured with respect to diverse representation at various levels of the organisation as well as with respect to whether a culture of inclusion has been embedded.

Successful diversity programs usually involve a complex interface of initiatives and not merely discrete and unconnected educational efforts which are limited to particular employee levels or which have no follow-up. In fact this is true of any change initiative.

Prerequisites for the strategic success of any diversity program (training or otherwise) are that it must be supported from the top – preferably by the CEO – and diversity strategies must be embedded and fully aligned with other business strategies of the organisation. It must be comprehensive and filter through the entire organisation.


The HBR article starts from the proposition that diversity programs in the U.S.A. were a response to a number of high-profile discrimination and harassment suits – some of them going back to the 1990’s. In fact, modern diversity programs have long-since evolved from the tick-the-box, risk-minimisation forays. We at Symmetra have distinguished between negatively focused “anti-discrimination compliance” and positively focused “diversity and inclusion” training for at least a decade. We’d agree with the authors that most people hate attending compliance training (and being told what to do) and in fact most experienced L&D professionals hate delivering it.

But it is important not to confuse risk-management techniques – such as hiring tests, performance ratings and grievance procedures which are instituted as a shield against potential discrimination claims – and true inclusion programs which are conceived and implemented as wide-ranging strategies to leverage diversity in order to benefit teams and  optimise business performance. Our programs are designed to confer skills and capability benefits to participants, enabling them to confidently and effectively lead diverse teams and make better decisions – not browbeat them into compliance.

So, to identify methods such as mentoring and institution of diversity councils as being highly effective (as the HBR article does) and stating that in comparison training and anti-biasing modalities are ineffective is almost certainly overly-simplistic. The benefits of mentoring and diversity councils are likely to be much better achieved when the scope and purpose of the entire diversity initiative has been explained and absorbed through an initial educational program that delivers a consistent message across the business. Another paper from the same authors found that whole-of-organisation, culturally-focused, voluntary diversity training does improve diversity. Even the compliance focused training so negatively reviewed will still deliver modest positive results when paired with proper accountability structures.


Companies which have consistently made the top 50 list for diversity in the U.S.A., such as Novartis, EY, Sodexo, Johnson and Johnson, and Accenture, to name a few, have all implemented long-term diversity awareness and skills training programs on their journey to being and remaining the best diversity companies. When executed correctly as part of a broader strategy, diversity training can be shown to deliver excellent results.

At Symmetra, we are continually learning, adapting and modifying our programs to help embed an inclusive workplace culture for our clients and to achieve measurable changes in their diversity profile. We applaud research which examines what works, and the underlying message that companies who think a series of quick training sessions are some kind of silver bullet need to think again. But we hope that readers of the HBR use this research to help guide the design of effective training programs and diversity strategies, not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Heather Price in Lawyers Weekly!

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(photo courtesy AALA NSW)


Heather Price, CEO of Symmetra, presented at the Women’s Lawyer Association of NSW in conjunction with the Asian Australian Lawyers Alliance (AALA) seminar titled “Where the Glass and Bamboo Ceilings meet in the Australian Legal Profession.” The session focused on the challenges presented by intersectional diversity to the legal profession. The recent edition of Lawyers Weekly reports in detail about Heather’s presentation.


Symmetra appointed national provider of UB training for lawyers

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In what is an Australian first, the Law Council of Australia (LCA) supported by its constituent bodies, the Law Societies and Bar Associations in the States and Territories, have appointed Symmetra the exclusive provider of a national roll-out of unconscious bias education for all practising lawyers.

It has become apparent that there is a pressing need to institute this type of education to address the persistent structural and attitudinal barriers embedded within the culture of Australia’s legal profession. These severely limit opportunities for female lawyers as well as other diverse legal practitioners. The National Attrition and Re-engagement Survey (NARS) report, 2014 highlighted significant aspects of the legal profession that slow or arrest the advancement of women to senior positions to the point where many are so frustrated that they leave for good.

In addition to this, by adopting a more conscious approach to decision making, legal practitioners of every description can improve their legal and business acumen. Unconscious bias impacts on all areas of the legal profession: people and talent, assessment of cases and evidence, jurisprudence, client interactions, ethics and strategic business decisions.

Symmetra is offering a range of solutions to address unconscious bias for solicitors, barristers, in-house counsel and legal support. All solutions will be nationally recognised for Continuing Legal Education / Continuing Professional Development points.

Are financial institutions unconscious of ‘unethical’ behaviour?

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It was recently reported that a US business tycoon, Cary M. Maguire, Chairman and President of the Maguire Oil Company, and Maguire Resources Company of Dallas, Texas, had donated $2.5 million dollars to the American College, a leading Financial
Services educator in the US, which has as its mission “…to increase the awareness of ethics issues and raise the level of ethical behaviour in the Financial Services industry”. Commenting on the large sum donated, Larry Barton, CEO and President of The American College stated: “The foundation of the relationship between financial professionals and their clients rests on building and maintaining trust…financial professionals must be equipped to make well-informed decisions and take appropriate responsible actions”. Post the GFC, calls for greater ethical practices in the FS sector particularly, is common place across global economiesand suggests the
clear need for ethical reform.

The work of Harvard ethicists Banaji, Bazerman and Chugh show that because people want to see themselves in a positive light there is an unconscious psychological tendency in almost everyone to dramatically overestimate how ethical their behaviour actually is. Take this comment from a financial services professional: “We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow  create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle… I know I could slit my wrists and people would cheer but I am doing God’s work.”

Such comments provide insight into the ethical mindset of some in positions of power. Indeed, in an article entitled “The Current Subprime Financial Crisis: Ethics Issues and Potential Reforms”, Richard P. Neilson, attacking the existence of such mindsets in the FS sector, argues that it “…is the purpose of financial services to create wealth, but in such a way that it makes the manager (or banker) a better person, and the world a better place”. The focus for lasting reform therefore ought to start with the human person…

In order to make lasting reform, it is important that those in Leadership are initially conscious of unethical behaviour – but certain psychological processes could be causing blind-spots even in their own perception of what is occurring. Financial Services companies have a duty to maximise returns for shareholders. However, research shows that a focus on the financial element causes people to unconsciously blur and fade the ethical dimensions of their decisions.

A 1999 study by Tenbrunsel and Messick asked Master’s degree students to play the role of a manufacturer in an industry known for emitting toxic gas. In the scenario, they were told that having come under pressure from environmentalists, their industry had reached an agreement to voluntarily use costly equipment to reduce the pollution. Some students were told they would face a modest fine if they broke the agreement, whilst others were told there would be no fine. Curiously, the participants in the study who faced a fine were more likely to cheat, not less. By introducing the fine, the students considered the decision a financial one – “economically it was worth taking a risk of getting caught and paying a modest fine in light of the high cost of running the equipment”. Ethics seemed not to play a significant role. But without the fine,abiding by the agreement was solely an ethical decision, and students were more likely to and follow their conscience. By introducing the financial element, the ethical element of the decision was blurred or faded.

The on-going financial crisis and the collapse of world respected financial institutions such as Lehman Brothers, etc. – is likely to have increased the focus of Financial Services companies over the last few years on ensuring their sustainable financial health. Indeed, there is evidence which suggests that the focus on profiteering remains rife, such that is difficult for other factors to be considered. It is very unlikely people are  choosing to be unethical – ethics just doesn’t come into play at all.

There is a compelling reason for Financial Services Leadership to understand these processes and make the structural changes necessary to reduce the harmful effects of human psychological and ethical limitations; otherwise more FS companies, in the light of previous experiences, could slide down the slippery slope, and share the fate of Enron and Arthur Andersen, all the while being unable to understand where exactly they went wrong.