Online diversity training is a common tool used by organizations to change attitudes and behaviours around bias and discrimination. This study used a field experiment at a large, global organization to investigate the effects of a one-hour online diversity training course on employee attitudes and behaviours. The authors discovered that, for employees who were relatively less supportive of women, online diversity training produced attitudinal change but not behavioural change. For employees who were already supportive of women (e.g., women employees in the United States), diversity training resulted in behavioural change to act more inclusively towards women. Therefore, while online diversity training may change behaviours for some demographics, most groups, particularly socially dominant groups, may not be affected.
For employees who were relatively less supportive of women, online diversity training produced attitudinal change but not behavioural change.
Evidence shows that more than half of midsized and large employers in the United States implement diversity training for their employees. However, it is uncertain what the effects of diversity training are on employee attitudes and behaviours. The researchers of this study investigated this question by partnering with a large, global organization. They conducted a one-hour long, voluntary online training session with 3,016 of the organization’s employees from 63 different countries. The sample was 61.5% male, and 38.5% were from the United States.
The employees were assigned to three different experimental conditions: gender bias training, general bias training, and control training, that was focused on psychological safety and active listening. At the end of the training session, the researchers measured attitudes through surveys. Weeks and months after the training, they unobtrusively measured workplace behaviours. They combined the results for gender bias and general bias training groups for data analysis.
The authors discovered that employees who received diversity training showed stronger attitudinal support for women, were more willing to acknowledge their gender biases, and showed more gender inclusivity when presented with workplace scenarios, compared to those who did not receive diversity training. However, this result was primarily driven by employees outside of the United States, who had relatively less supportive attitudes towards women than employees from the United States to begin with, and thus had more room to improve.
Further, diversity training had an effect on employees’ behaviours towards women, but only for groups who already showed strong attitudinal support of women (i.e., women themselves):
- Three weeks after training, in a mentorship initiative designed by the organization, US employees who had received diversity training selected women as mentees significantly more than those who had not received diversity training. This effect was primarily driven by women employees choosing to mentor other women.
- Three weeks later, through an organizational initiative to recognize employee excellence, US employees who had received diversity training nominated a significantly higher number of women for recognition, compared to those who had not received diversity training.
- Fourteen weeks after training, the organization asked employees whether they would spend 15 minutes on a phone call with a new hire. Women employees who had received diversity training signed up to speak with a woman new hire significantly more than those who had not received diversity training.
Since behavioural change only occurred for groups who were already inclined to support diversity, online diversity training cannot be the only effort to encourage diversity and inclusion in organizations.
- Online diversity training may improve attitudes and behaviours about diversity, but only for certain groups — The results of this study show that short, online diversity training programs can prompt people who are already supportive of women to behave more inclusively towards women. Online diversity training could serve as an encouragement to act on their existing attitudes. For those who are not strongly attitudinally supportive of women, diversity training could improve their attitudes, but may not change behaviour.
- Online diversity training needs to occur in the context of organizational culture change — Since behavioural change only occurred for groups who were already inclined to support diversity, it is clear that online diversity training cannot be the only effort to encourage diversity and inclusion in organizations. Rather, organizations need to use training in coordination with other initiatives, such as hiring more women and minorities into positions of power, and transforming other practices where bias and discrimination may be embedded.
Research brief prepared by: CARMINA RAVANERA
Chang, E. H., Milkman, K. L., Gromet, D. M., Rebele, R. W., Massey, C., Duckworth, A. L., & Grant, A. M. (2019). The mixed effects of online diversity training. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(16), 7778–7783. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1816076116