Doing the Work at Work
New York magazine|May 24 - June 06, 2021
What are companies desperate for diversity consultants actually buying?
By Bridget Read

As the sun went down on May 31, 2020, Kellie Wagner was packing up her Brooklyn apartment when she heard a roar: the chanting of thousands of Black Lives Matter marchers arriving in Fort Greene Park from a nearby rally at Barclays Center. It was the sixth day of nationwide protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, and the NYPD had already made several violent arrests. Wagner was about to move to California, expecting a slow summer: The pandemic had caused half a million dollars in future business to dry up virtually overnight for Collective, the workplace-diversity consultancy she founded. Companies told her they no longer had the budget for her services. Wagner, who is 35, thought she might have to close up shop for good. Just before she left for the airport, she passed the remnants of a burned-out cop car, broken glass glittering on the sidewalk.

Two days later, Wagner was in Palm Springs—and her in-box was overrun with more than a hundred inquiries from prospective clients. Companies that had canceled on her two months prior were now desperate for help. There were a lot of white CEOs crying on the phone, Wagner recalls, because they had crash-read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and were racked with guilt. There were heads of fashion and beauty brands whose Black employees had begun speaking out on social media about their companies’ racist cultures. What should the CEOs Slack to their staffs? What should they tweet to their customers? What wouldn’t get them criticized but would seem humble and aware—but not so humble and aware that they’d get criticized regardless?

It went on like that for a week, with Wagner in back-to-back-to-back intake calls. Another rush occurred on June 2, #BlackoutTuesday, when two Black entertainment executives called on companies, celebrities, and influencers to post a black square on their Instagram feeds to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Brands wanted Wagner’s advice on how best to participate in the campaign—and then, when many of them were excoriated for the low stakes of the gesture, they wanted her advice on how to apologize for it. “They were calling and saying, ‘Well, the black square didn’t work,’” Wagner says. “But when you make external statements and you haven’t cleaned up your own house, it’s so inauthentic. You’re asking to be dragged.”

Collective was even courted by the notoriously vulgar media company Barstool Sports, whose founder, Dave Portnoy, was known for provocations like comparing Colin Kaepernick to Osama bin Laden. Wagner said she would consider taking on Barstool as a client if Portnoy agreed to executive-leadership training. She never heard back. (Barstool disputes this.)

Across the country, consultants in the diversity business felt that same whiplash of pandemic bust turning into protest boom. Practitioners who were collecting unemployment received calls from the CEOs of major corporations looking to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars publicly and fast. An in-house diversity professional in San Francisco who had been laid off in a five-minute Zoom meeting in March saw the company re-list his job in a lengthy, solemn Medium post. In Seattle, Tali Lavarry, a former corporate-event planner who had opened her consulting business a few months before statewide shutdowns began, was surviving on instant noodles and peanut-butter sandwiches when her phone started ringing; soon, she took on so many clients she had to hire four employees.

The onslaught was a jarring combination of exhilaration and chaos. One white male executive told Lavarry, “I think I handle colored people all right.” She politely disagreed. Wagner, who is Black, says she had “a kind of breakdown” a few weeks in. “I was having to exert all of this emotional energy to hold space for these white people, who were just waking up for the first time and being like, ‘Oh my God, racism exists.’” Still, the mad dash meant that within a quarter, she was able to scale up to 20 employees.

An explosion of fortune in 2020 is one of the few universal things in the amorphous industry of diversity consulting—a space as varied as its constellation of interrelated acronyms and ampersands implies. DEI and DE&I “diversity, equity, and inclusion” are more common than D&I, but many refer to the cause as I&D or DEIB (the B is for “belonging”). Portrayed by the right wing as a single-minded cult, DEI is in reality a loose federation of adherents, with a host of methodologies, competing for money and attention. DEI practitioners share a worldview—that workplaces can become more humane and just—but they are also rivals in a for-profit industry of their own making, with the same incentives of salespeople and marketers everywhere. Corporate America spends roughly $8 billion annually on diversity, according to a figure that gets passed around routinely—though that rough estimate was first cited in 2003, which means the true profitability of the market is uncharted.

Certainly, after Floyd’s murder, the business became astronomically larger than ever. But instead of an industry finally coming into focus, thanks to unprecedented funding and momentum, what composes DEI feels even more dizzyingly diffuse, and its true beneficiaries remain in question. “It really is the Wild West,” Lily Zheng, a consultant in San Francisco who has amassed more than 23,000 followers on LinkedIn, tells me. “One of the major challenges of DEI is there’s no quality control. Anyone can call themselves a DEI practitioner. When your clients are these companies that are desperate to do anything and don’t quite understand how this works, ineffective DEI work can be lucrative. And we’re seeing cynicism pop up as a result, that DEI is just a shitty way in which companies burn money. And I’m like, Yeah, it can be.

If you work in an office, virtual or otherwise, chances are high you’ve been required to take a diversity-related training course. Recently, workers at a multinational company clicked open one such module and encountered “Case Study No. 3: Ethnic Stereotype,” with a photo of a heavyset white man. This was “Michael,” a security guard who “clocks out for lunch from his post on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and sits down to eat in the employee lounge,” where Cindy, his colleague, notices he has only a small sandwich and some apple slices. Cindy needles Michael: “What kind of Italian are you?” she says. “That is the smallest sandwich I have ever seen! Throw some meat on that bread or bust out some pasta and gravy, you big paisan. You’re gonna be starved by the end of your shift!” The module invited workers to consider the ramifications of Cindy’s actions: “How do you think this makes Michael feel? Is Cindy implying that Michael needs to eat more food because he is Italian? Do you think Cindy’s comment could have offended others in the lounge?”

There is a saying among professionals that HR is where DEI goes to die, and when they say it, they usually have something like these two characters in mind. Cindy and Michael are diversity training as bad pornography: low budget, nonsensical, poorly written, too funny to be taken seriously. No one is learning anything meaningful or relevant about bias from this scene. (On Twitter, where it went viral, one user mockingly worried about the “italianx community.”) Its absurdity undermines the entire enterprise. DEI consultants argue (out of self-interest, but persuasively) that the generalists in HR, tasked with organizing everything from commuter discounts to holiday parties, don’t have the skills to set norms around the most sensitive interactions in the office. A security guard who actually took the Cindy and-Michael training looked into it and told me that he’s pretty sure the video was created in-house by his company’s HR wing—specifically by a white woman from Pennsylvania named Jordyn.

The sandwich incident hearkens back to the origin of the corporate diversity movement: Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which barred certain forms of discrimination at work. The earliest corporate training consisted of short sessions, led by HR departments, to remind managers of company policies. The goal was to protect corporations from litigation. In the late 1980s, as women and people of color entered the white-collar workforce in greater numbers, diversity efforts shifted. The advent of “sensitivity training” concerned the well-being of these newcomers in a variety of common scenarios that went beyond legal liability into the realms of appropriateness and respect. This evolution of the work required more than just knowledge of the law and gave way to a niche industry. Companies began hiring outsiders to tell them how to behave.

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