DiversityJobs.com

Traditional diversity training doesn’t work. Why not? And what does?

A diverse workforce is not a fleeting trend but the key to higher revenue, capturing new markets, and even more meaningful innovation.

You’ve no doubt already seen some of the statistics that back this up: companies with more gender and ethnic diversity among staff are more likely to have financial returns above national industry medians (15% for gender, 35% for ethnic diversity). The most inclusive businesses also have a cash flow 2.3 times higher per employee than non-diverse companies, and those that have more diverse management teams reported innovation revenue 19 percentage points higher than that of companies with below-average leadership diversity. Companies with more ethnically and culturally diverse boards are 43% more likely to show higher profits. And when employees believe their company supports diversity and helps them feel included, they report an 83% increase in their ability to innovate, as well as a 42% increase in team collaboration.

There is no diversity without inclusion

Being able to attract a diverse staff – whether it’s in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, disability, LGBTQ, or veteran status – is only the first step. If you can’t retain these employees, all of the effort that went into recruiting them is for naught. Employees (of any kind) that don’t feel welcomed, appreciated, equal, and included are less likely to contribute in a way that makes a company profitable, to stay for very long, or to recommend a company to other diverse candidates in the future. That’s where changing a company’s culture through employee training programs comes in.

Diversity and inclusion training was once thought to be the gold standard for building a company culture in which different people could co-exist and thrive. Unfortunately, this hasn’t panned out the way we’d hoped. While the goal of such training is to help enhance knowledge of other groups, prevent discrimination, reduce conscious and unconscious bias, and ensure equal opportunities among all employees concerning salary and advancement, we now know that it fails on multiple levels–and can even make things worse.

Traditional diversity training fails all employees

An oft-cited study by sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev followed 830 companies that instituted compulsory diversity training for managers and found that over the course of 5 years, this training coincided with “declines in the numbers of African American women and Asian American men and women and no improvement among white women and other minorities.”

And while diversity training might seem like a new trend, it’s been around since the 1960s and has long been shown to increase hostility in the workplace, especially among white men who felt that they were being told their jobs were on the line if they didn’t follow a set of new rules.
And it’s not the only study to show that these kinds of programs have detrimental effects. A 2011 University of Toronto study showed that these programs actually increase bias among employees because they force outside ideas about the value of diversity onto employees and imply that they don’t have the freedom to think about these issues on their own terms. And while diversity training might seem like a new trend, it’s been around since the 1960s and has long been shown to increase hostility in the workplace, especially among white men who felt that they were being told their jobs were on the line if they didn’t follow a set of new rules.

Resentful employees are also likely to find ways around the new system – for example, if they’re forced to use new testing methods to screen applicants, they’ll simply distribute those selectively, so preferred candidates continue to rise to the top.

Knowing all this, is it any surprise that we’re still woefully lacking in diversity despite over 50 years of training programs?

Here are some of the specific problems researchers have identified over the years:

Diversity and inclusion can’t be learned in a day

For decades, diversity and inclusion training has been sold as an educational package by consultants who simply put together a slide deck of obligations and legal ramifications that are then shown to employees in a mandatory 1-day seminar. Now we know that this type of “training” doesn’t work in the short or long term.

In a 2016 meta-analysis of 40 years of research on diversity and inclusion training, an international team of business researchers found that it takes a far more sophisticated commitment to create change in an organization:

“The positive effects of diversity training were greater when training was complemented by other diversity initiatives, targeted to both awareness and skills development, and conducted over a significant period of time.”

Legalistic training breeds resentment and resistance

Diversity and inclusion training fails when it’s treated as a set of rules employees are forced to abide by. Compulsory training breeds resentment – after all, attending a mandatory seminar in which you’re told your job is on the line if you don’t behave a certain way is bound to lead to resistance, especially among those who feel they’ve done nothing wrong.

Most training is one-size-fits-all

Furthermore, these quick-and-dirty training seminars aren’t integrated into the company’s culture in any way, giving attendees the impression that some outside entity is telling them how to think, feel, and act, as well as implying that they’ve been doing things wrong all along.

People don’t identify as sexist or racist 

A lot of diversity training implies that employees are sexist or racist by giving them a list of things they need to “stop doing.” And the hard truth is that even if a person is biased against a group, they’re likely to be hostile to the idea of change, especially by force. Unfortunately, researchers have found that while traditional training may lead to more awareness of issues, it’s not enough to change ingrained beliefs or alter an employee’s behavior towards others.

In fact, the mere presence of a diversity program has been enough to assure some white, male employees that their workplace is fair and equitable.

Change is hard

And maintaining the status quo – which is usually a majority of straight, white, able-bodied men, particularly at higher levels – has come to be seen as standard and efficient. If a company is profitable, they might see any attempt to disrupt the norm as a waste of time and money.
Any type of change is hard for most people, even when it’s necessary. It feels threatening to play by a new set of rules, especially when a misstep might label you as biased, racist, sexist, and put your livelihood at risk. It’s easier for everyone, from entry-level employees to CEOs, to pretend that everything is ok. And maintaining the status quo – which is usually a majority of straight, white, able-bodied men, particularly at higher levels – has come to be seen as standard and efficient. If a company is profitable, they might see any attempt to disrupt the norm as a waste of time and money.

More and more companies are being called out for their lack of diversity. Competition with companies that do have a diverse workforce will put those who don’t change at a disadvantage. So, once your company accepts that diversity is beneficial, and inclusion is the key to building and maintaining a diverse workforce, how do you change the old company culture?

What makes a successful diversity and inclusion initiative?

Companies need to give employees a reason to want a diverse workplace and empower them to make it happen of their own free will. And since everyone benefits from a more inclusive environment – even if that’s measured in terms of productivity and company success – it shouldn’t be a hard sell.

Here’s what we should be keeping in mind when it comes to improving company culture:

Focus on all employees, not just management

Let’s think of it this way: if you had a production or supply chain issue that was affecting your bottom line, you’d do everything you could to fix it, right? A lack of diversity should be seen as the same type of impediment to progress and profit.
Kalev and Dobbin’s work has given companies a lot to think about when it comes to merely instituting management-focused, legalistic diversity training programs, and they’ve suggested many ways in which these programs can be tweaked to resolve known issues. Effective diversity and inclusion initiatives involve all stakeholders, not just management; they include everyone from entry-level employees to CEOs. Focusing on managers breeds resentment among that group – which doesn’t want to be told who they should or shouldn’t hire – so opening up diversity training to all employees is critical. And so is making employee training less legalistic and threatening to reduce hostility and pushback.

Let’s think of it this way: if you had a production or supply chain issue that was affecting your bottom line, you’d do everything you could to fix it, right? A lack of diversity should be seen as the same type of impediment to progress and profit.

Employers that genuinely care about changing their company’s culture for the better should be sure that employees at every level have been heard when it comes to the problems faced in their units. Only then can you truly craft solutions that address your actual problems.

Use empowerment, not coercion 

While diversity and inclusion are legal issues, and it makes sense to include all employees in training, multiple studies have suggested that mandatory training is less effective. In fact, voluntary programs are well-attended, with roughly 80% of employees showing up. When leaders stressed the importance of attending training for their self-betterment, other employees were likely to follow. Researchers have found that voluntary training is not only more effective than coercion but also correlates with growth in minority groups in the companies that structure their training in this way.

Update and tailor the curriculum

Take it from Ernst & Young, now going through intense public scrutiny after one of the roughly 30 female executives who attended a training on leadership and empowerment held in June 2018 gave a copy of the program to Huff Post…Some of the more memorable teaching points were ‘Women’s brains absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup, so it’s hard for them to focus,’ ‘Don’t talk to a man face-to-face,’ and ‘sexuality scrambles the mind.’
If you’ve hired a diversity and inclusion officer or consultant, it’s important to vet their curriculum to make sure they’ve taken into account the failures of the past and the suggestions that new research has offered.

Take it from Ernst & Young, now going through intense public scrutiny after one of the roughly 30 female executives who attended a training on leadership and empowerment held in June 2018 gave a copy of the program to Huff Post. An outside vendor created the curriculum, which was reported by some to be anything but empowering for women. Some of the more memorable teaching points were ‘Women’s brains absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup, so it’s hard for them to focus,’ ‘Don’t talk to a man face-to-face,’ and ‘sexuality scrambles the mind.’

Now is the time to ask how a company as large and so intent on communicating values of integrity and respect as E&Y is still outsourcing their leadership training to a consultant so out of touch in 2018 that they include advice on having well-manicured nails to female executives. There are likely many other companies that need to reevaluate their programs.

Training should be tailored to your company and industry, its culture, and the specific goals you’ve set (which means you have to think about the issue and set some reasonable goals). There are no one-size-fits-all ways of approaching the issue (though there are several bad ways of doing it).

Identify leaders and craft metrics of success

No one person can monitor every potential issue in a large company. That’s why it’s helpful to identify allies and leaders in individual units – even building a diversity task force – who can relay expectations, keep lines of communication open, and monitor progress using specific, relevant metrics of success the company or unit has crafted for itself. But rather than assign them a checklist of things to change or goals to hit, it’s more effective to turn them into diversity champions who are empowered to address bias and unequal representation in their units when they see it.

Keeping lines of communication open in every direction is key to making sure this goes smoothly.

Increase contact and perspective-taking among diverse employees

One thing that makes people more accepting of others is increasing their contact. That may seem counterintuitive if you’re afraid that diversity training should come first, but the fact is people are afraid of what they don’t know. Kalev and Dobbin use the example of black and white soldiers fighting side by side during WWII after high casualties forced previously segregated troops together. A sociologist who surveyed the troops showed that white soldiers who had fought side by side with black platoons “showed dramatically lower racial animus and greater willingness to work alongside blacks than those whose companies remained segregated.” By working together as equals, the soldiers saw each other’s similarities first and foremost.

You don’t have to be at war to see this phenomenon in action. Kalev and Dobbin found that self-managed teams that worked across departments and therefore come into contact with more women and ethnic minorities, led to more acceptance. It turns out that “working side-by-side breaks down stereotypes, which leads to more equitable hiring and promotion.” They came to see each other as teammates first and foremost.

Another piece of research that dovetails nicely with this is a 2014 study by researchers from George Mason University and Rice University that showed that exercises in perspective-taking (for example, being asked to imagine the challenges faced by marginalized minorities) “can improve pro-diversity attitudes and behavioral intentions toward these groups.”

Transparency is key 

By committing to transparency, companies are forced to gather data, take a hard look at their successes and failures, and open themselves up to critique by the outside world. It’s an intimidating endeavor, but it does allow you to see the cold, hard truth. It can also inspire a commitment to change.

Transparency breeds accountability. When a company knows people will see just how few minority employees they have or how different the pay rate is between men and women, for example, they’re more likely to remediate the issues.

If we know what works, why are we still failing?

If we have proof that the strategies above help companies become more diverse and therefore more profitable, why don’t we see more of it? How are companies still scheduling the dreaded one-day diversity seminars that not only don’t work but hinder inclusion?

Well, for starters, instituting a new diversity initiative takes time and effort. And even when companies are willing to do it, they are loathe to cancel any diversity initiative they’ve already instituted. No one wants to be the company that “canceled diversity training,” and legal departments often step in to discourage such moves.

But lawyers aren’t the only ones standing in the way. After all, they want initiatives to work to avoid discrimination complaints. Old-school diversity consultants are also hesitant about new approaches because it requires them to rethink their offerings completely.

In an interview with DiversityJobs.com, Frank Dobbin drove home the issue:

“The fact is most consultancies now are developing — or have developed — these webinars and online courses. So, basically, they have a package to sell you. And it’s a high-margin business because once you have an online training package, the marginal cost of adding another 1,000 people is very small.”

Companies also face a problem identified in the late 1990s and labeled “diversity fatigue.” The complex problems such as pipeline issues, recruitment, and a lack of mentors made hiring and maintaining a diverse workforce “exhausting.” But as we know, fixing insidious and systemic issues is hard. It requires effort and resources. It might not always feel worth the trouble when companies hear that most millennials expect to change jobs every few years (which, to be fair, Baby Boomers did as well in their early careers). But this excuse turns diversity is a scapegoat. In reality, retention strategies that work for underrepresented hires also address some of the same issues that force young workers to find a company with a “better fit” – issues such as pay equity, transparency, good mentorship, and company values. To top it off, we’re even finding that blaming things like pipeline issues are simply repeating talking points of the past that don’t always hold up anymore.

With more and more research illuminating the problems with this type of training, companies can no longer afford not to rock the boat. It’s time to change – and that may mean it’s time to change consultants or hire a dedicated diversity officer for your company.

Don’t throw diversity out with the training

Just because traditional diversity training doesn’t work, this doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and declare the whole problem unsolvable. There are plenty of diversity initiatives that do lead to real, meaningful change. They give people of all genders, ethnicities, abilities, and backgrounds a chance to thrive. And it’s a win-win since diverse companies are more innovative and profitable.

FURTHER READING:

80+ Diversity in the Workplace Statistics You Should Know via Built In, November 2019.

“Why Diversity Programs Fail,” by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev. Harvard Business Review, July–August 2016.

“Two Types of Diversity Training That Really Work,” by Alex Lindsey, Eden King, Ashley Membere, and Ho Kwan Cheung. Harvard Business Review, July 2017.

“To Improve Diversity, Don’t Make People Go To Diversity Training. Really.” by Jena McGregor. The Washington Post, July 2016.

“A Meta-Analytical Integration of Over 40 Years of Research on Diversity Training Evaluation, “by Katerina Bezrukova, Chester S. Spell, Jamie L. Perry, and Karen A. Jehn. Psychological Bulletin (Volume 11), 2016.

“How Diversity Training Infuriates Men and Fails Women,” by Joanne Lipman. Time Magazine, January 2018.

“Diversity Policies Rarely Make Companies Fairer, and They Feel Threatening to White Men,” by Tessa L. Dover, Brenda Major, and Cheryl R. Kaiser. Harvard Business Review, January 2016.

Jessica Baron, PhD

Jessica has a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science. She works as a writer and consultant on a wide range of topics, including the ethics of science, technology, and medicine; science and pseudoscience in the wellness industry; national security; and diversity in the workplace.

Add comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.