Diversity and inclusion training providers are concerned recent strides in corporate America to address racial and gender disparities will take a back seat after President Donald Trump ordered restrictions on racial sensitivity training for federal contractors.
Many Chicago-area companies expanded their workplace diversity training programs earlier this year following the civil unrest resulting from George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May.
The topics of white privilege, systemic racism and unconscious bias have become focal points in those programs, consultants say. Now, they’re the target of an order from Trump cutting off funding to contractors who teach “divisive” and “anti-American” concepts.
Last week, Trump signed an executive order that bars federal contractors from promoting race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating in their diversity training programs. Companies could risk losing contracts if they don’t comply.
The Chicago area is home to some of the biggest federal contractors, including aerospace manufacturer Boeing and medical device maker Abbott Laboratories, which recently inked a deal with the federal government to provide 150 million rapid COVID-19 antigen tests. Neither responded to requests for comment.
Under the order, contractors are prohibited from teaching concepts that “promote divisiveness in the workplace and distract from the pursuit of excellence and collaborative achievements in public administration.”
Contractors can’t teach that the U.S. is fundamentally racist or sexist, claim members of a certain race are oppressors or put blame on a certain race or sex for past actions committed by other members of the same race or sex.
The executive order cited training materials from Argonne National Laboratories, a research lab in Lemont that is part of the U.S. Department of Energy. According to the order, Argonne’s training materials stated racism “is interwoven into every fabric of America” and described color blindness and the meritocracy as “actions of bias.”
Argonne referred requests for comment to the energy department, which declined to name Argonne’s diversity training provider or say how long the program had been in place.
Shaylyn Hynes, an agency spokeswoman, said in an email Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette has “directed DOE leadership to conduct an expedited enterprise wide review of diversity and inclusion workshops.”
Already, one consulting firm in Chicago has lost a client because of the president’s order.
Scott Hoesman, CEO and founder of InQuest Consulting, a Chicago-based firm that provides diversity and inclusion training services to businesses and federal agencies, said a federal agency client canceled its services Friday in light of Trump’s order.
“It has politicized what we view as a nonpolitical approach to workplace inclusion. We believe inclusion is not a political issue. It’s a culture issue,” he said.
Hoesman declined to name the agency but said his firm can weather the loss as demand for diversity and inclusion training has picked up this year.
In the aftermath of the Floyd protests, companies large and small released statements denouncing discrimination, made donations to anti-racist groups and pledged to increase diversity in their ranks. Some companies started to address race relations through diversity training programs from outside providers.
Pam McElvane, CEO of Diversity MBA a talent management and diversity and inclusion training provider in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, said some clients are now looking at different approaches to their training programs to comply with the order.
“They are meeting as we speak. What they are looking at is: How do we adjust what we are doing to continue to deliver diversity training but not violate the law,” she said.
Her firm, which also publishes a trade magazine on diversity and talent management issues, provides services to more than 100 clients, including McDonald’s, Advocate Aurora Health, Allstate and commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle.
Annette Tyman, a partner at Chicago-based law firm Seyfarth, said one implication from the president’s order is that federal contractors won’t be able to attribute unconscious bias to race or gender in training programs.
“If you want to have a frank conversation about privilege on the basis of being white or male, it would be prohibited under this order,” she said.
In the last decade, unconscious bias training has picked up steam as a way for employers to teach their workers about stereotypes they might hold about certain groups of people without realizing it.
McElvane said there has been a shift to anti-racist strategies that incorporate topics on privilege, race relations and systemic racism. Over the years, that type of training has helped companies ensure they are committed to diversity and inclusion, she said.
“When you talk about (those topics) of course they are going to be uncomfortable… Companies can’t afford to walk away from this,” she said.
Trump’s order also prohibits the use of grant funds to promote training concepts it deems divisive. The order directs the heads of all agencies to review their grant programs and allows them to require recipients to certify that funds will not be used to promote such training.
“It’s unclear how it will get implemented,” Tyman said.
Several different types of contractors and grant recipients are looking at how they’ll be affected, including the Jewish Child & Family Services of Chicago. The JCFS has a federal contract that provides janitorial training for people with disabilities and helps them gain employment, spokeswoman Pam Austin said in an email.
The University of Illinois also is reviewing the president’s order and how it affects its funding, spokesman Tom Hardy said in an email.
As part of the order, the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs will launch a hotline where people can report federal contractors for violating the order, and it will investigate complaints.
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