Commentary: Diversity training is unpopular because it doesn’t work (but companies could change that)

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Diversity is a hot topic in corporate management today. Corporate managers have been implementing diversity initiatives since at least the 1960s, but the issue has exploded in interest in recent years, as the Black Lives Matter movement has grown and authors like Robin D’Angelo and Ibram X. Kendi have become popular as diversity training consultants and pundits. Meanwhile, political opposition to diversity initiatives has also grown, with charges of hypocrisy and reverse discrimination becoming increasingly common. Fortunately, corporate managers could address these competing demands with a strategy they already know well—product testing.

It might seem odd to subject racial and gender diversity measures to the same process used on new mechanical equipment and mobile apps, but the underlying goal is the same—to achieve the highest quality with the fewest costs. If we acknowledge that some diversity programs are better than others, it follows that corporations should use the ones with the most advantages and fewest liabilities. Unfortunately, few companies seem to have made any attempt to do this.

A growing body of research has documented the repeated failure of large employers to exercise any significant quality control over the diversity trainers they invite into their boardroom and workspaces. The cost/benefit ratio of new diversity initiatives is often so poor that their implementation often makes racial and gender relations in the workplace worse than before.

Sociologist Alexandra Kalev, then with the University of Arizona, found back in 2008 that the number of female and non-white mangers fell at most firms after diversity training exercises were mandated. Similar studies since have reinforced her findings.

In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, Kalev, now with Tel Aviv University, and Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin reiterated those findings, stating that corporate programs—many of which have changed little since the 1960s—“often make things worse, not better.” This might come as a shock to people who imagine corporate managers as ruthless taskmasters always focused on efficiency and measurable outcomes.

In another Harvard Business Review article from 2019, Edward Chang and Katherine Milkman of the Wharton School point out that, while virtually all Fortune 500 companies now require diversity training, “few of them have measured its impact.”

Part of the problem is that many diversity training courses were originally implemented as a defense against future discrimination lawsuits, with little thought as to whether they actually cultivate mutual respect in the workplace. Federal courts have signaled time and again that implementing mandatory diversity training puts corporate defendants in a stronger position when sued for discrimination. But courts rarely, if ever, involve themselves in the details of what such training should look like or what its measurable outcome should be. The important thing is to require employees and—especially—managers to attend some sort of training at some point. Once that box is checked, few firms bother with any follow-on research on effectiveness.

That’s a shame, because it’s becoming increasingly clear that the traditional training methods are failing. Perhaps the most compelling—and counterintuitive—conclusion is that mandating training is less effective than making it voluntary. Many managers perceive being required to participate in such training as an implicit accusation that they are racist or sexist, even when they’ve never exhibited any such behavior in the workplace. Employees also resent it, seeing it as an unpleasant workplace task to be gotten over with quickly and forgotten.

Another problem, highlighted by Kalev and Dobbin, is that examples and messages in diversity training are overwhelmingly negative rather than focused on win-win scenarios. Over the decades, many companies have ratcheted up the penalties for noncompliance with diversity policies, essentially deciding that if they frighten their employees with drastic enough consequences, those employees will have no choice but to engage in the correct behaviors. But that often leads white and male managers to see a diverse workplace a minefield of threats—and women and non-white coworkers as risky liabilities whose complaints could trigger punishment. Research on decades of employment policies bear that out.

In order to do better, corporations need to do a few simple things. They should steer away from training styles and management policies that we know don’t work, test and compare new policies to see which result in more positive outcomes and attitudes, and be open to understanding that programs with the best of intentions can produce unintended consequences that render them counterproductive.

Read the full article at the Finger Lakes Times.