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“Does Diversity Training Work?” is the Wrong Question

By Melissa J. Anderson

Recently business writer and strategic advisor Peter Bregman published a blog post on the Harvard Business Review network proclaiming that “diversity training doesn’t work.” He suggests that most companies undertake diversity training to avoid lawsuits – and this is why it fails.

Certainly training undertaken as part of a kneejerk reaction to potential litigation isn’t going to be positioned or received in the best light – it’s no wonder that kind of diversity training is likely to fail. But Bregman believes that diversity training actually fans the flames of intolerance. He writes, “Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice. It promotes it.”

He believes that diversity training produces only two results: it either causes people to become overconfident about their level of tolerance or to stereotype individuals into oversimplified categories.

Fear or compliance-driven strategies won’t change intolerant workplace cultures – but simply proclaiming that all diversity training is ineffective is misguided at best – and damaging at worst. Asking whether it “works” is the wrong question – here’s why.

Oversimplification of Diversity Trianing

According to Bregman, there are two reasons that companies undertake diversity training:

“One is to prevent lawsuits. The other is to create an inclusive environment in which each member of the community is valued, respected, and can fully contribute their talents. That includes reducing bias and increasing the diversity of the employee and management population.”

Certainly, creating an inclusive environment is a good thing. But according to Bregman, no matter the motivation, diversity training won’t work. There are two problems with his assessment.

First of all, he bases his analysis on one case study, a company which was responding to the threat of litigation. After two tries at diversity training, it didn’t seem to be “working,” in that they kept getting sued.

Rather than undertaking an analysis of the deep cultural biases that may be at play within the particular workplace, Bregman throws the baby out with the bathwater. He decides that the problem is not a particular culture of intolerance, but that diversity training had led employees to, first, become overconfident about their level of inclusiveness and, second, to categorize individuals into broad stereotypical groups.

The reality of bias in the workplace is that people already stereotype individuals who are both similar to them and different, and they do it unconsciously. When training is used to illuminate this fact to people, they can reassess their own biases and motivations. Perhaps the problem with the outcome of diversity training in Bregman’s case study lies in the quality of their diversity training overall.

The second problem is that he is asking the wrong question in the first place. He is assessing a diversity program’s effectiveness based on a rise or drop in lawsuits. If companies decide that they will measure the effectiveness of diversity training by tracking lawsuit frequency, they are already starting off on the wrong foot and their diversity program won’t go far.

Diversity training should be approached from a proactive business standpoint – to increase workplace productivity and retention, unlock paths to new clients and markets, and activate diverse, high performing talent – not reactively, to avoid getting in trouble.

What Works?

As Frank Dobbin, Alexandra Kalev, and Erin Kelly wrote in their 2007 study Diveristy Management in Corporate America:

“The good news is that companies that give diversity councils, or diversity managers, responsibility for getting more women and minorities into good jobs typically see significant increases in the diversity of managers. So do companies that create formal mentoring programs. Much less effective are diversity training sessions, diversity performance evaluations for managers, and affinity groups for women and minorities.”

Proactive diversity strategy around individual performance seemed more effective than anonymous programming. Diversity programs do work – but only when taken with care and strategy. Forcing employees to sit through a punitive group diversity lecture won’t create the inclusive atmosphere that is necessary for all individuals to bring their best selves to work. But that’s no reason to say that diversity programs fail and companies shouldn’t undertake them. It just means they need to approach diversity with from a proactive, strategic standpoint.

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