Your Diversity Training Is a Fail So Why Do You Do It?

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Apr 25, 2019

Most large companies put their employees through some sort of formal diversity training in order to educate them about inappropriate workplace behavior. What employers don’t realize is that standard methods of diversity training often have a negative effect on workplace bias, employee morale, and diversity recruitment efforts.

Experts have known about the failures of diversity training since 2006 when a ground-breaking Harvard study analyzed data from 829 U.S. companies detailing their workforce’s race, gender, and ethnicity numbers. The researchers followed-up with questions about their use of both diversity programs and evaluations and how those affected the rates of women and minorities in management positions. Neither increased management diversity. In fact, these efforts sometimes had negative effects on diversity statistics.

Two of the professors who authored the study, Frank Dobbin and Sandra Kalev, used their research to establish a common-sense explanation for why these programs don’t work: Most diversity training programs – which are typically mandatory to attend and cover the legal case for diversity – give employees and managers the impression that an outside entity is telling them how to think and feel about issues of diversity. They also suggested that white men who felt that their jobs were on the line when diversity efforts were part of performance evaluations responded negatively to this training.

Dobbin and Kalev penned a piece in The New York Times on their results and wrote an award-winning Harvard Business Review article endorsing alternative programs that statistics have shown will produce positive results. Yet little has changed.

We here at reached out to Professor Dobbin to find out why ineffective diversity training is still used by so many companies.

Q. Why is diversity training still so common?

“The reason we hear most often for why companies stick with it is fear of legal action. A number of companies where I’ve talked with top management, or given a talk when management was there – the CEOs seem to say, “Ok, we’re not going to do diversity training anymore, it’s obviously a waste of our money.” Well, a number of times I’ve heard later that they’ve changed their minds because legal counsel stepped in and said, “We can’t be the only firm in the industry that isn’t doing diversity training. And if we stop doing it that will be a signal.”

Q. What are the legal concerns related to diversity for businesses?

“Companies are worried that if they’re sued it will come up in the legal documents that they’ve canceled their diversity training. Large employers get quite a few Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges every year – the biggest employers get hundreds and thousands. Most of those just go away or resolve in favor of the employer, but some of them end up at trial and either create a black eye or end up being very costly. So, it’s a lawyer’s job to do what they can to keep employers out of legal trouble. I think lawyers are risk-averse and they don’t want to cancel any programs that might signal that the employer doesn’t care about diversity.”

Q. What laws do employers have to be aware of regarding diversity?

“The law doesn’t tell people what they have to do in regards to diversity efforts – the law essentially just forbids discrimination.

Q. Im aware that a lot of diversity training is provided by consultants. Have any of these consultancies contacted you for advice in transitioning their expertise into more effective diversity programs?

“No, they haven’t. It’s a kind of different area of expertise. If you’re used to making money as a trainer and you have a curriculum for that, it’s not obvious how you switch to becoming a mentoring consultant.

‘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.

Q. So, if a company doesnt want to drop its diversity training program, what reforms do you suggest they might implement to make their program more successful?

“The things that are most harmful are making it mandatory and covering the law in the curriculum. If you do those two things, diversity training has only adverse consequences — it only reduces diversity for several of the historically underrepresented groups. But if you make it voluntary and cut the legal content so it’s only about interpersonal relationships, getting along, and good management, then diversity training can have some positive effects. The problem is that almost all firms make it mandatory, and almost all firms cover the legal curriculum.”

3 tactics that work

In their HBR article, Dobbin and Kalev suggested three specific tactics that do work:

  1. Engaging and empowering managers in solving problems of bias and unequal representation (thereby making them identify as diversity champions and mentors)
  2. Increasing contact among employees from different ethnic groups so they can see each other as teammates first and foremost
  3. Encouraging social accountability for change (and thereby making successes and failures more transparent).

We’ve yet to see much uptake on these ideas. Most companies still favor traditional diversity training.

Dobbin and Kalev continue to pursue their research and may publish their findings later this year.