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Dubious About Diversity: When Public Employees Raise Objections to Mandatory Dei Training

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Joseph G. Jarret
February 2, 2024


Were you to conduct a literature review on the dos and don’ts and the whys and hows of public workplace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training, you’d find a wealth of good information. One topic that continues to be understudied, however, concerns employees who negatively respond to mandatory DEI training. In fact, it is not uncommon to find resistance to such training, if not outright objections to the same, with some protestations manifesting themselves in formal grievances or lawsuits. Some state legislatures have gone so far as to either severely limit, or ban outright, mandatory public sector DEI training. Such instances of backlash or pushback, if you will, provide unique challenges for public HR managers.  

To belabor the obvious, DEI training is designed to enlighten employees to the presence of social inequality. This is accomplished by implementing initiatives that seek to improve the status of disadvantaged groups (e.g., women, racial/ethnic minority groups) in the public workplace. Not all employees, however, embrace or even acknowledge the importance of such training. Researcher Aarti Iyer observed that “Opposition (to mandatory DEI training), can be particularly fierce from people who belong to advantaged groups that benefit from the status quo (e.g., men, racial/ethnic majority groups). Given the power wielded by advantaged groups, their opposition can undermine the successful implementation of DEI policies, thus resulting in continued inequality, wasted resources and potential for tension in the organization.”

Trisha Rai and Caitlin Dutkiewicz (2022), observed that pushback to DEI efforts can stem from two types of perceived threat:

  1. Threat to individual identity: Employees may respond negatively if they perceive DEI efforts as a threat to their self-identities. For employees from dominant groups in particular, DEI efforts may pose a significant threat to maintaining positive self-views or beliefs (i.e., seeing oneself as a person with positive or valued traits, such as being fair or anti-racist, etc.) When individuals from dominant groups feel shamed or blamed for DEI challenges in the workplace, they can be motivated to respond defensively to restore a positive sense of self. This defensive posture may manifest in pushback.
  2. Threat to social identity: Employees also derive a positive sense of self from the groups they belong to. Belonging to groups with high status and valued attributes contributes to employees’ positive social identities and their ability to access resources. DEI efforts may be perceived as threats to the positive social identities employees derive from being a part of dominant groups (e.g., men, powerful racial/ethnic groups, cisgender). Employees may fear DEI initiatives will not only cast aspersions on the virtue of their groups (e.g., promoting the idea of whites being racist, or of men being sexist) but also cause them to lose the privileges and power such group membership bestows (e.g., access to senior leaders and career opportunities). Employees from dominant groups may push back when they feel DEI initiatives are unfairly targeting them for their racial or gender identities, or constitute “reverse discrimination” against historically advantaged demographic groups.

What’s an Organization to Do?

Promoting DEI in the workplace can meet mixed reactions depending on how central of a value it has been in the past. However, everything gets more manageable if senior leadership strives to educate, and as such, convince all employees and stakeholders that DEI is an important part of their organizational culture. In order to reduce the frequency and severity of claims predicated upon mandatory DEI training, senior management should consider the following;

  • The importance of DEI program support by all persons in supervisory and management positions;
  • The importance of both soliciting employee input, as well as involving employees in DEI training design;
  • The importance of conducting needs assessments and customizing programs to meet a particular entity’s needs, culture and composition (Note, because each entity has its own DEI-issues, no one size fits all or generic approach or set of standards should be employed to establish the focus and content of training);
  • The importance of hiring trainers who possess DEI training skills and who can demonstrate a proven ability to teach diversity, rather than trainers who are selected solely because they represent an underrepresented portion of the entity;
  • The importance of creating an atmosphere in which all employees take ownership of the diversity problems and recognize that they are part of the problem as well as of the solution;
  • The importance of remembering that effective programs should be more geared toward changing an employee’s behavior than changing their values.


Many organizations have seen an increase in employee acceptance in settings like DEI workshops, which afford employees the opportunity to begin to see how, what they perceive as a normal day in the office, could actually use improvements in terms of developing a culture of belonging, increasing inclusivity and being open to differing opinions and identities. It’s not easy to convince someone who isn’t passionate about DEI or doesn’t think it applies to them to get engaged in the work. However, by investing in the right ways, public entities can enjoy the benefit of a renewed interest in the topic. Dr. Niki White suggests that, by encouraging employees to attend DEI events, paying them for their participation in working groups, investing in a resource library and hosting learning circles, an entity is, in effect, investing in its employees, thus making them feel more engaged in DEI. She likewise suggested, “We have to get more sophisticated about not simply asking people to be a part of the experience and then allowing that moment to end. How can we further our experiences to put the learnings into practice? It all starts with investing in our employees and developing a company-wide interest in DEI–one valued employee at a time.”

Author: Dr. Joseph G. Jarret is a public sector manager, attorney, and mediator who lectures on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is a past- president of the E. Tennessee Chapter of ASPA who holds the B.S., MPA, J.D., & Ph.D. degrees, and is a former United States Army Armored Cavalry Officer with service overseas.

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