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What do we know about diversity training?

In our increasingly diverse society, organizations are constantly challenged to create environments for every employee to feel included and valued. Unfortunately, despite a company’s best efforts, many employees end up feeling excluded ­– be it due to implicit bias or explicit prejudice. In response to this challenge, many organizations look to diversity training programs to help employees understand their own biases, increase employee engagement and satisfaction, and create an environment that fosters diversity and inclusion. Indeed, as many as 67% of U.S. organizations report some use of diversity training[1], and 15% of organizations have staff dedicated to diversity and inclusion.

There are strong motivations for the adoption of diversity training. Making advances in diversity can lend organizations visibility and status, improve talent recruitment, customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and innovation, and, more cynically, can shield organizations from expensive lawsuits. As a result, many organizations have invested heavily in this kind of training. However, recent research has suggested that diversity training may not be effective, and can, in some cases, do more harm than good. So, what does the evidence say? Should companies invest in diversity training or not?

Recent research has suggested that diversity training may not be effective, and can, in some cases, do more harm than good.

To answer this question, leading scholars gathered to debate the pros and cons of diversity training at a Research Roundtable on Gender and the Economy held at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. In the format of an Oxford-style debate, Professors Rafael Gomez (University of Toronto, Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources), Sonia Kang (University of Toronto, Rotman School), Eden King (Dept. of Psychology, Rice University) and Winny Shen (Dept. of Psychology, University of Waterloo) presented their research-based arguments for and against diversity training as a useful and effective tool for reducing bias and improving organizational life. The points below are a summary of the main arguments made in the debate.

What is diversity training? Who implements diversity training?

Diversity training is a distinct set of programs or interventions intended to reduce prejudice and bias, improve communications and inter-group relations, and increase the knowledge, skills, and motivation of employees so that they can perform more effectively in a diverse working environment. Diversity training seeks to produce a more successful organization with higher-performing employees, generate compliance to legal and ethical standards, increase employee satisfaction and retention, and support the development of a diversity of ideas.[2]

Diversity training activities can include disseminating information on the organization’s policies and expectations, building awareness, teaching skills, motivating behavioural change, and providing employees with new experiences.[3] There are many versions of diversity training, and companies often use a combination of practices.

Probably the most common form of diversity training these days is Implicit Bias Training. The goal is to make participants aware of bias and prejudices that may not be conscious, but nonetheless shape decisions and behavior. Implicit bias testing, such as the Implicit Association Tests provided by Project Implicit at Harvard University, reveal the gaps between our explicitly-stated and internally-held attitudes toward a variety of social groups. Training can encourage participants to develop an awareness of attitudes and beliefs that support prejudice so that alternative perspectives can be adopted.

Over the years, many other types of diversity training programs have been developed by consultants and academics alike. Anti-Bias Training presents value-based principles and methodologies to cultivate a respect of differences that will lead to the elimination of bias. Classical Conditioning pairs images or representations of stigmatized groups with positive images and words to eliminate implicit biases held by participants. Sensitivity Training raises awareness of attitudes and behaviours that may cause harm to others. This type of training can also involve developing empathy. An example would be asking participants to write an essay from the perspective of someone different from them. Cross-Cultural Training educates participants on differences across cultures to engender an understanding of diverse motivations and perspectives. Also referred to as cultural competence or multicultural education, programs may utilize the Multicultural Awareness-Knowledge Skill Survey (MAKSS) or the Multicultural Counselling Awareness Scale (MCAS). Contact Interventions utilise direct contact between members of different groups. Also called cooperative contact, these diversity training programs can include peer-led discussion groups or guided communication training where participants from different groups interact with each other.

What are the worries about diversity training?

Although many firms have invested in these diversity programs, recent evidence suggests that they may not always be effective.

  • Are the results reliable? Many diversity training programs evaluate success with a self-administered survey on bias or prejudice. Changes in participants’ evaluations over time may be the result of participants learning the evaluation goals, or becoming more familiar with the questionnaire, and may not reflect actual change in prejudiced attitudes or beliefs. Research also shows that employees with more positive attitudes toward diversity are more likely to participate in non-mandatory diversity initiatives, suggesting that training programs may not reach the employees who have the most severe biases.[4]
  • Reduced diversity. Mandatory diversity training can result in strong backlash. Studies show that diversity interventions like training, testing, and grievance systems can make firms less diverse as managers resist threats to their autonomy to make decisions.[5] For example, in one study, organizations that implemented mandatory diversity training had 6% fewer black women in management positions after five years.[6]
  • Worse behaviour. Diversity training can lead to worse behaviours. A study found that ethnic minority employees stated that the behaviour of their coworkers worsened after they participated in a diversity training program. Backlash effects can occur if trainees resent being selected for diversity training and view training as punishment for prior insensitive behaviour.[7]

Backlash effects can occur if trainees resent being selected for diversity training and view training as punishment for prior insensitive behaviour.

  • Illusion of fairness. Even the presence of diversity training alone can create the illusion that an organization is fair, and inequality is not a problem. A study found that white male participants who were told that diversity training had occurred felt women were treated more fairly, even when faced with evidence of the contrary.[8]
  • Stereotype rebound. In some cases, attempts to increase awareness reinforce stereotype norms, and participants who are instructed to avoid stereotypes enact more stereotypical behaviours and discrimination.[9] A study found that business students who participated in a diversity training where they watched a video that instructed them to supress negative stereotypes about the elderly, evaluated older job applicants more negatively.[10]

This research suggests that diversity training may have unintended consequences for the participants, for the potential beneficiaries of the programs, and for the organizations that sponsor them. Does this mean that companies should stop doing diversity training?

What are the possible benefits of diversity training?

Proponents of diversity training argue that its overall impacts are positive despite the limitations to current diversity training models. A meta-analysis of hundreds of diversity training studies shows that although outliers exist, diversity training has had real and significant positive effects overall.[11]

  • Real outcomes in skills, knowledge and learning: The average or typical diversity-training program produces significant positive effects on knowledge (learning), acquisition of diversity skills, and improvements to diversity-related motivation and attitudes. For example, people attending a typical training program would be 64% more likely to experience an increase in their knowledge or skills around diversity than someone who does not attend that program.[12]
  • Effects on behaviour. Research indicates that diversity training may have only a small direct influence on attitudes, both implicit and explicit; however, changes in knowledge and behaviour may lead to larger changes in attitudes over time. For example, someone might learn how to communicate more effectively with people different from them, and after many interactions with others, may develop an improved attitude toward diverse groups.[13]
  • Create a culture of change. Another significant value of diversity training is that it can help to cultivate a growth mindset regarding the malleability of diversity-related behaviours. Goal-setting theory tells us that building awareness through diversity training can signal that diversity is an important issue to an organization and set expectations for employees. Research shows that those who set positive behavioural goals immediately after attending training sessions exhibit more diversity-supportive behaviours post-trainin