Is Diversity Training a Waste of Time?

Diversity programs haven’t done much to actually increase diversity in the workplace.

This is the conclusion recently reached by sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, who drove this idea home throughout an article appearing in the July/August 2016 edition of Harvard Business Review.

The authors point to volumes of past research that they say reinforce the notion that diversity efforts—mandatory diversity training sessions in particular—may be well-intentioned, but often miss the mark.

“Firms have long relied on diversity training to reduce bias on the job, hiring tests and performance ratings to limit it in recruitment and promotions, and grievance systems to give employees a way to challenge managers,” wrote Dobbin and Kalev.

“Those tools are designed to preempt lawsuits by policing managers’ thoughts and actions,” according to Dobbin, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, and Kalev, an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University.

Laboratory studies, however, “show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out. As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy. Try to coerce me to do X, Y or Z, and I’ll do the opposite just to prove that I’m my own person.”

Dobbin and Kalev’s HBR piece is based on their own examination of three decades’ worth of data, culled from more than 820 United States-based businesses as well as interviews with hundreds of line managers and executives.

In conducting their analysis, the authors found that companies saw representation of some demographic groups actually drop in the five years after they made diversity training programs obligatory for managers.

For instance, the share of black women in management roles decreased by 9 percent on average in that time, while the ranks of Asian-American men and women declined by 4 percent to 5 percent.

“Trainers tell us that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance,” added Dobbin and Kalev, noting that many participants reported feeling more animosity toward other groups after taking part in such programs.

The authors outlined other ways in which diversity training efforts are typically derailed.

Threatening undertones, for example, help to upend many diversity training programs.

“ … 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.’ We understand the temptation … but threats, or ‘negative incentives,’ don’t win converts.”

Dobbin and Kalev contend that companies achieve better results “when they ease up on the control tactics” in delivering diversity programs.

“It’s more effective to engage managers in solving the problem, increase their on-the-job contact with female and minority workers, and promote social accountability—the desire to look fair-minded.

“That’s why interventions such as targeted college recruitment, mentoring programs, self-managed teams and task forces have boosted diversity in businesses. Some of the most effective solutions aren’t even designed with diversity in mind.”