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

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Diversity is one of the hottest topics in corporate management today. And while corporate managers have been implementing diversity initiatives since at least the 1960s, the topic 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. Unfortunately, political opposition to diversity initiatives has also grown dramatically in recent years, with charges of hypocrisy and reverse discrimination 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 – achieving the highest quality with the fewest costs. If we acknowledge that some diversity programs are better than others, than it’s an easy step to say that corporations should make sure they’re using the ones with the most advantages and fewest liabilities. Unfortunately, this is something that seemingly few companies have made any attempt to do.

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 actually makes racial and gender relations in the workplace worse than it was before. Research by Prof. Alexandra Kalev has found that, as the Washington Post reported back in 2008, “Most diversity training efforts at American companies are ineffective and even counterproductive in increasing the number of women and minorities in managerial positions.” Kalev’s research found that the number of female and non-white mangers actually fell at most firms after diversity training exercises were mandated. Similar studies have reinforced these findings in the years since.

In 2016, Kalev (of Tel Aviv University) and Frank Dobbin (a sociologist at Harvard) published an article in Harvard Business Review titled “Why Diversity Programs Fail.” The authors reiterated that corporate programs, many of which have changed little since the 1960s, “often make things worse, not better.” This will no doubt come as something of a shock to people who imagine corporate managers as ruthless taskmasters always focused on efficiency and measurable outcomes. Another Harvard Business Review article from 2019 by Edward Chang and Katherine Milkman of the Wharton School explains that while virtually all Fortune 500 companies require diversity training, “few of them have measured its impact.”

Part of the problem is that many diversity training courses were originally implemented not to actually cultivate mutual respect in the workplace but to serve as a defense against future discrimination lawsuits. Federal courts long ago signaled that implementing mandatory diversity training would leave corporate defendants in a stronger position when sued for discrimination. But courts rarely, if ever, involve themselves in the details of what the policy is or what’s its measurable outcome are. The important thing is simply to force employees (and especially managers) to attend some sort of training at some point. Once that boxed is checked, few firms bother with any follow-on research on effectiveness.   

That’s a shame, because it’s becoming increasingly clear how the traditional training methods are failing. Perhaps the most compelling – because it’s so counterintuitive – is that making training mandatory is itself one of the biggest problems. Many managers perceive being required to participate in such training as an implicit accusation that they themselves are racist or sexist, even when they’ve never exhibited any such behavior in the workplace. Required attendance at such trainings is often seen as a punishment rather than a tool for professional success, and thus employees resent them, resist their requirements, and stop engaging with their content as soon as their requirements are over. 

Another problem, highlighted by Kalev and Dobbin, is that examples and messages in diversity training are overwhelmingly negative and antagonistic rather than focused on win-win scenarios. Over the decades, many companies have ratcheted up the penalties for non-compliance with company policies, essentially deciding that if they frighten their employees with drastic enough consequences, those employees will have no choice but to exhibit the correct behaviors. But that approach often leads white and male managers to see a diverse workplace a minefield of threats. More women and non-white coworkers become risky liabilities whose complaints could trigger a cascade of punishments and retribution. This does not help achieve diverse and respectful workplaces, and research on decades of employment policies bear that out.   

In order to do better, corporations need to do a few simple things. They should immediately steer away from training styles and management policies that we already know don’t work. They should test and compare new policies aggressively to see which actually result in more positive outcomes and attitudes, and be open to understanding that even the programs with the best of intentions can produce unplanned side effects that render them counterproductive. The research shows that mentoring programs, targeted recruiting drives, and combining employees into diverse groups for training and teamwork all help build mutual respect. When it comes to cultivating a diverse and successful workplace, offering positive feedback and social rewards for a job well done are superior to focusing on punishments and the threat of lawsuits.

By focusing on positive outcomes rather than policing everyone’s thoughts with enforcers from the human resources department, employers can create workplaces that celebrate the diversity of the nation’s talent and build value for everyone.