Debate: Does diversity training work?

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Debate: Does diversity training work?

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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-training.[14]

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.

  • Unlock the creative potential of teams. People have long argued that diverse teams can be a source of creativity and innovation. However, we know that diversity can also lead to conflict or difficulties in communicating. Research shows that for teams to benefit from diversity, team members need to take the perspectives of those who are different from them. Diversity training can be the intervention that enhances perspective-taking and helps teams reach their creative potential.[15]

Proponents of diversity training point out that these benefits have been realized even when many of the programs have been poorly implemented. Further, the research evidence to date is largely in direct contrast to the prevalent “myth” that diversity training is ineffective, which may be largely the result of a vocal, but small, minority of individuals who do not like such training programs. One might anticipate that these benefits would further increase if companies were using research-informed best practices.

If you are going to do diversity training, how to do it right.

There is a tremendous upside for organizations if they can get diversity – and more importantly – inclusion right. But, inclusion requires more than just putting diverse people together. Research shows that the key to high performing diverse groups is intervention to help people overcome diversity challenges. Here are some guidelines to avoid pitfalls and ensure maximum impact:

  • Take a behavioural approach. We know from research on dieting, exercise, work addiction, and other issues, that it is very hard to turn attitudes into behaviours. For diversity training to be successful, it needs to make a connection to behaviour. Research shows that the overall effect of behaviour-based training has a significantly higher impact than diversity training that focuses only on awareness.[16] Effective diversity training needs to supply behavioural alternatives so participants have a repertoire of potential actions in place when confronted with difficult scenarios, such as a colleague making sexist or racist jokes in the workplace.
  • Use data. Organizations must think like scientists: collecting, analyzing, and disseminating data to inform how they structure and deliver diversity initiatives. Having clear measurements of the organizations’ progress towards goals can help them avoid pitfalls like the illusion of fairness, which happens when people assume an organization is fair simply because it signals that it is fair. Letting the data tell the story can motivate change.
  • Host your training in an educational setting. Research shows that participants are more likely to enjoy diversity training that takes place in an educational setting than within their organization. It signals that there is something new to be learned and opens up people’s minds to thinking differently.[17]
  • Make it voluntary. Research shows that mandatory diversity programs have negative or no effects. Individuals have strong negative reactions to threats to personal autonomy and may resent being selected for training. In contrast to mandatory training, voluntary training, and other voluntary approaches such as mentoring and assigning diversity managers have strong, positive effects. Creating a sense of ownership, autonomy, and pride can lead to better outcomes and less backlash.[18] [19]
  • Create new norms. The backlash to diversity training shows us that imposing values on people in a mandatory setting is ineffective. Instead, stakeholders should decide together what the norms should be. Once in place, those in positions of authority need to set the example through their own behaviour. If new behavioural norms are established, organizations can capitalize on the human desire to fit in.[20]
  • Keep the focus on inequality. In the service of making training more palatable, there may be a temptation to use diversity as a blanket term for difference. The risk is that the training does not help intervene on the real sources of inequality in organizations. Calling attention to inequality and privilege is more effective than a broad-brush treatment of diversity. Research shows that diversity training that focuses on specific aspects of diversity and their intersections (e.g., gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.) is more effective than those that use a broad approach.[21]

Calling attention to inequality and privilege is more effective than a broad-brush treatment of diversity.

  • Take the long view. Most diversity training programs are not very long, taking place over only a day or two. Numerous studies show positive effects when training sessions are spread out over multiple weeks. In addition, each training session should be substantial in length so that people have time to mull over the issues, move beyond surface impressions, and have the opportunity to practice new skills. Research supports a time-frame of 4.5-6 hours as having the greatest impact on changing attitudes towards diversity.[22]
  • Integrate with other policies and programs. Integrated diversity training programs (when there are other diversity initiatives in the environment – like mentoring programs) are more effective than standalone diversity training programs. Presence of diversity training, in concert with other diversity practices and policies, may help demonstrate an organization’s sincerity and commitment to diversity.

What are the alternatives to training?

Of course, diversity training is not the be-all-and-end-all of enhancing inclusiveness in organizations. It is tempting to think that a specific intervention such as training would be able to fix the challenges of inequality in organizations, but, even at its most effective, there are other types of interventions that can serve as important complements to training or perhaps more practical substitutes for training in certain contexts.

  • Review hiring practices. Organizations can look at how job postings are framed or worded. Is the language and positioning used attracting a diverse audience? Is the organization getting a diverse slate of candidates? How is the organization making hiring decisions? For example, research shows that determining hiring criteria in advance of seeing the hiring slate can reduce gender discrimination in the hiring process.[23]
  • Skills-based assessments. When it comes to recruiting and promotion, some organizations are turning to skills-based assessments to counteract bias. For example, applicants for a coding position may be asked to code a program and submit it, rather than submitting their traditional application package. Employees want to know who can actually do the job, not whose credentials suggest that they should be able to. However, research suggests that the application of skill tests needs to be uniform to be effective. Currently, when it comes to race, white candidates are more likely to be exempted from testing, while minority candidates are more likely to have skill test results used as a reason for not being hired or promoted.[24]
  • Mentoring and sponsorship programs. Organizations can investigate if diverse employees are supported in the talent pipeline. Is key talent from diverse populations being lost because the culture is not supportive or inclusive? Are diverse candidates promoted? Organizations can add mentoring and sponsorship elements to talent management practices to ensure diverse employees are receiving visibility and support. Research shows that structuring accountability into these programs makes them significantly more effective.[25]
  • Diversity committees or task forces. A task force or committee comprised of employees from multiple departments and managerial levels can be charged with overseeing diversity initiatives and monitoring progress. While more than 60% of large organizations collect measurements and metrics on diversity-related practices, only 34% have a method in place for measuring the impact of those practices. Only 7% of organizations conduct analysis to determine a return on investment for diversity initiatives.[26] An important role of leadership is to measure, monitor, and hold people accountable for progress.

While more than 60% of large organizations collect measurements and metrics on diversity-related practices, only 34% have a method in place for measuring the impact of those practices.

In conclusion, people are right to raise alarms about the potential unintended consequences of diversity training. The press today is filled with stories of backlash in organizations to an increased attention to diversity and inclusion. On the other hand, it is clear that there is no turning back: the workforce is only becoming more diverse and companies that want to attract and retain excellent talent will want to create the most inclusive environment possible. So, where does that leave us? Our Oxford-style debate highlighted best practices for training programs and complementary activities that any organization could adopt as they move forward. The key to understanding the usefulness of diversity training is to see how it creates an environment in which the benefits of diversity can be cultivated.

Suggested Reading List

Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2016, July & Aug.). Why Diversity Programs Fail. Harvard Business Review, 52-60.

Lindsey, A., King, E., Membere, A. & Cheung, H. K. (2017, July). Two Types of Diversity Training That Really Work. Harvard Business Review.

Emerson, J. (2018). Don’t Give Up on Unconscious Bias Training – Make it Better. Harvard Business Review.

Williams, M. (2018). Diversity Isn’t a Numbers Game. Harvard Business Review.

References

[1] Kulik, C.T., & Roberson, L. (2008). Common Goals and Golden Opportunities: Evaluations of Diversity Education in Academic and Organizational Settings. Academy Of Management Learning & Education, 7(3), 309-331.

[2] Phillips, B.N., Deiches, J., Morrison, B. et al. (2016). Disability Diversity Training in the Workplace: Systematic Review and Future Directions. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 26, 264-275.

[3] Kulik, C.T., & Roberson, L. (2008). Common Goals and Golden Opportunities: Evaluations of Diversity Education in Academic and Organizational Settings. Academy Of Management Learning & Education, 7(3), 309-331.

[4] Paluck, E.L., & Green, D. (2009). Prejudice Reduction: What Works? A Review and Assessment of Research and Practice. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 339-367.

[5] Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2016, July & Aug.). Why Diversity Programs Fail. Harvard Business Review, 52-60.

[6] Kalev, A., Kelly, E., & Dobbin, F. (2006). Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies. American Sociological Review, 71(4), 589-617.

[7] Sanchez, J., & Medkik, N. (2004). The Effects of Diversity Awareness Training on Differential Treatment. Group & Organization Management29(4), 517–536.

[8] Kaiser, C. R., Major, B., Jurcevic, I., Dover, T. L., Brady, L. M., & Shapiro, J. R. (2013). Presumed fair: Ironic effects of organizational diversity structures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(3), 504-519.

[9] Macrae, C. N., Bodenhausen, G. V., Milne, A. B., & Jetten, J. (1994). Out of mind but back in sight: Stereotypes on the rebound. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(5), 808-817.

[10] Kulik CT, Perry EL, & Bourhis AC. (2000). Ironic evaluation processes: effects of thought suppression on evaluations of older job applicants. Journal of Organizational Behaviour. 21, 689–71.

[11] Bezrukova, K., Spell, C.S., Perry, J., & Jehn, K. (2016). A meta-analytical integration of over 40 years of research on diversity training evaluation. Psychological Bulletin142(11), 1227–1274.

[12] Bezrukova, K., Spell, C.S., Perry, J., & Jehn, K. (2016). A meta-analytical integration of over 40 years of research on diversity training evaluation. Psychological Bulletin142(11), 1227–1274.

[13] Kalinoski, Z.T., Steele-Johnson, D., Peyton, E.J., Leas, K.A., Steinke, J., & Bowing, N.A. (2013). A meta-analytic evaluation of diversity training outcomes. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 34(8), 1076-104.

[14] Madera, J.M., King, EB, & Hebl, M.R. (2013). Enhancing the effects of sexual orientation diversity training: the effects of setting goals and training mentors on attitudes and behaviours. Journal of Business Psychology, 28 (1), 79-91.

[15] Hoever, I., van Knippenberg, D., van Ginkel, W., & Barkema, H. (2012). Fostering team creativity: perspective taking as key to unlocking diversity’s potential. The Journal of Applied Psychology97(5), 982–996.

[16] Bezrukova, K., Spell, C.S., Perry, J., & Jehn, K. (2016). A meta-analytical integration of over 40 years of research on diversity training evaluation. Psychological Bulletin142(11), 1227–1274.

[17] Bezrukova, K., Spell, C.S., Perry, J., & Jehn, K. (2016). A meta-analytical integration of over 40 years of research on diversity training evaluation. Psychological Bulletin142(11), 1227–1274.

[19] Legault, L., Gutsell, J. and Inzlicht, M. (2011). Ironic Effects of Antiprejudice Messages. Psychological Science, 22(12), pp. 1472-1477.

[20] Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2016, July & Aug.). Why Diversity Programs Fail. Harvard Business Review, 52-60.

[21] Kalinoski, Z.T., Steele-Johnson, D., Peyton, E.J., Leas, K.A., Steinke, J., & Bowing, N.A. (2013). A meta-analytic evaluation of diversity training outcomes. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 34(8), 1076-104.

[22] Phillips, B.N., Deiches, J., Morrison, B. et al. (2016). Disability Diversity Training in the Workplace: Systematic Review and Future Directions. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 26, 264-275. Bezrukova, K., Spell, C.S., Perry, J., & Jehn, K. (2016). A meta-analytical integration of over 40 years of research on diversity training evaluation. Psychological Bulletin142(11), 1227–1274.

[23] Uhlmann, E. L., & Cohen, G. L. (2005). Constructed Criteria: Redefining Merit to Justify Discrimination. Psychological Science, 16(6), 474-480.

[24] Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2016, July & Aug.). Why Diversity Programs Fail. Harvard Business Review, 52-60.

[25] Kalev, A., Kelly, E., & Dobbin, F. (2006). Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies. American Sociological Review, 71(4), 589-617.

[26] Scanlan, S. (2013). SHRM Survey Findings: Diversity and Inclusion. Alexandria, VA: Society for Human Resource Management.

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Research brief prepared by

Alyson Colón

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