Does diversity training actually work?

by Brett Henebery12 May 2017
According to research, organisations shouldn’t be so quick to use diversity training to shed employees’ biases.

A report by Harvard Business Review found that diversity training programs can actually have the opposite effect of what they intend.

“It turns out that while employees are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers,” the report stated.

In fact, the positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.

Another study, by the University of Buffalo’s (UB) School of Management, found that diversity training programs are not effective at changing attitudes and behaviours towards diverse groups in the workplace.

Despite this, nearly half of midsize companies use it, as do nearly all the Fortune 500.

So is it time to rethink diversity training?

Kate Bezrukova, PhD, associate professor of organisation and human resources in the UB School of Management, said diversity training can be effective so long as it is “conducted thoughtfully.”
“In today’s political climate, diversity training has the potential to make a huge positive impact in addressing biases and prejudice within organisations,” she said.

“At best, diversity training can engage and retain women and people of colour in the workplace – but at worst, it can backfire and reinforce stereotypes.”

The Harvard research shows one reason that organisations see adverse effects from diversity training is that three-quarters use negative messages in their training.

“By headlining the legal case for diversity and trotting out stories of huge settlements, they issue an implied threat: ‘Discriminate, and the company will pay the price,’” the report stated.

“We understand the temptation – that’s how we got your attention in the first paragraph – but threats, or ‘negative incentives’, don’t win converts.”

Another reason hampering diversity training is the fact that many organisations make it compulsory.

“People often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance. Your organisation will become less diverse, not more,” the researchers added.

However, the study by Bezrukova claimed the opposite.

According to her research, diversity training is most effective when it is mandatory, delivered over an extended period of time, integrated with other initiatives and designed to increase both awareness and skills.

“When organisations demonstrate a commitment to diversity, employees are more motivated to learn about and understand these societal issues and apply that in their daily interactions,” Bezrukova said.

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