Why ineffective diversity training won't go away
Share on Linkedin
Woman delivering a training seminar
Research has long shown that corporate training on diversity and sensitivity doesn't work. Why are workers still required to take it, job after job?

Most people who start a new company job know the drill. In addition to meetings and an office tour, orientation day typically includes sitting through a session or clicking through a set of virtual slides – with a quiz to follow – on diversity and sensitivity training. 

Ubiquitous in large workplaces across the globe, these company-wide sessions are staples at Fortune 500 companies and smaller organisations alike. “They're everywhere,” says Pamela Newkirk, the New York-based author of the book Diversity, Inc: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business. “Every major company… every major institution whether it’s academia or fashion – that seems to be the go-to strategy for dealing with the lack of diversity.” 

This training is so widespread that it’s developed into a lucrative industry. Yet research indicates that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training does very little to affect change within a workplace

“On average, the typical all-hands-on-deck, ‘everybody has to have diversity training’ – that typical format in big companies doesn't have any positive effects on any historically underrepresented groups like black men or women, Hispanic men or women, Asian-American men or women or white women,” says Harvard University sociology professor and diversity researcher Frank Dobbin. 

Yet despite its inadequacy, diversity and sensitivity training remains pervasive in workplaces. Often, it endures as a way to maintain optics, legal protection and the veneer of progressive action. But leading experts advocate for ditching these ineffective sessions, arguing instead for other initiatives that they believe can actually incite real change in a company. 

A recipe for failure 

There are several reasons why diversity training remains inconsequential in promoting inclusion – and in the worst-case scenario, can do more harm than good.

Quick training 'hits' don't change long-term behaviours and biases, research shows, and may even reinforce stereotypes (Credit: Getty)

Quick training 'hits' don't change long-term behaviours and biases, research shows, and may even reinforce stereotypes (Credit: Getty)

First, it’s extremely difficult to change personal and implicit biases through short-term educational interventions. In 2019, researchers examined various strategies to reduce implicit prejudice. They concluded that the kind of training which institutions tend to favour the most, such as “short, one-shot sessions that can be completed and the requisite diversity boxes ticked”, are unlikely to make a difference in the habits or long-term behaviour of participants.

Even larger efforts to reduce implicit bias formed over a lifetime show any positive effects tend to wear off after a few hours or days. Some researchers even suggest that asking people to fight stereotypes through training can make those stereotypes more prevalent in a person’s mind. And because there’s very little standardisation within the DEI-training industry, certain types of training can be harmful and even reinforce stereotypes

Eden King, an industrial-organisational psychology professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas, agrees with these conclusions. “Training sessions on these topics can be effective in increasing knowledge, but they do not tend to be effective in terms of changing long-term behaviours,” says King, who’s been studying diversity and inclusion in the workplace for 20 years. 

“Part of why it's so popular, is it's a relatively low-cost initiative,” adds Calvin Lai, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St Louis, US. “You kind of get what you pay for: low cost, low pay off.” 

Additionally, when employees feel like they’re being controlled, says Dobbin, organisational studies show they tend to react negatively. So, when diversity training is designated as mandatory – which Dobbin’s research found was the case at 80% of corporations in the US – employees can perceive these sessions as much less palatable than if they were voluntary.

You kind of get what you pay for: low cost, low pay off – Calvin Lai

In particular, says Dobbin, “young, white men may feel that just the announcement of a diversity training programme is a threat to their careers”. Dobbin and co-researcher Alexandra Kalev’s earlier research on 800 American firms over three decades revealed much more striking results. It showed that five years after training became required for managers, companies saw no increase in the proportion of minority groups in management. And, in fact, the proportion of black women and Asian-Americans at that level actually dropped. The driving theory is that managers don’t like to be strong-armed into changing their hiring practices. 

Covering tracks 

Why, then, do these sessions stay an immutable part of employee training, when all of the widely shared data says they simply don’t work, or even make work climates worse? One potential reason is their corporate benefits: these sessions help companies appear responsible, and may even help shield them from potential litigation.

With issues around racial discrimination being increasingly discussed, companies are keen to be seen as taking positive steps (Credit: Alamy)

With issues around racial discrimination being increasingly discussed, companies are keen to be seen as taking positive steps (Credit: Alamy)

As news coverage of racial insensitivity and outright bias have increased – especially in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the growing Black Lives Matter movement – corporate-image protection has become crucial. For example, when musician SZA accused Sephora of racial profiling in 2019, and Starbucks faced calls for a boycott in 2018 after the controversial arrest of two black men at one of the coffee chain’s locations in Philadelphia, both companies publicly announced they’d be closing briefly to conduct racial bias education for employees. 

Ultimately, the optics of promoting equality through ineffective training, says Dobbins, can be far more important for companies than the actual act of successfully training employees. And these public responses often succeed, at least superficially, at quieting criticism, particularly after a high-profile incident. Dobbin says it's something companies can do that’s “conspicuous, that everybody knows about”. 

Training may also endure in an effort to legally protect companies. Research shows that in American civil rights cases against employers, judges often look more favourably at companies that have diversity training programmes and anti-discrimination manuals. “Because the courts are more sympathetic to just the existence of a diversity apparatus and they don’t really pay attention to the efficacy of that apparatus and whether or not it actually fosters change, companies do it as a way of protecting themselves,” says Newkirk. 

Dobbin adds, “In many firms, legal counsel will say, ‘even if it doesn't do anything, if… we stopped doing it and all of our peers in the industry are doing it, what does that look like? It looks like we don't care anymore’.” 

Meaningful change? 

This training may not be all bad, however. Lai says that while training is never going to be a “silver bullet”, it can improve awareness in those who have had less exposure to the subject matter. “Sometimes you see evidence suggesting that the people who get the most out of the training are the people that start out knowing the least.” 

But if companies are genuinely interested in advancing marginalised members of the community, there are other methods in which experts say organisations should be investing for more positive outcomes. 

One way may be recruiting at diverse universities and colleges as well as diverse professional associations instead of majority-white institutions. Offering mentorship to every employee once they enter the company can help with retention. And hiring a diversity officer or task force to oversee these strategies and measure results is also a much more effective approach. These strategies, while promising more effective long-term benefits, are also more costly and require a stronger commitment to social change up the ladder. 

Dobbin says one of the most powerful tools can also be employee groups, when workers organise to support people of colour, women and LGBTQ employees within a company. Approaching superiors to suggest changes to training programmes or diversity initiatives, for example, can be less isolating and less threatening to individuals professionally when done as a larger coalition. 

But since it’s clear training isn’t going anywhere, King says the most productive kind of session is one that encourages empathy and interaction with other groups. Her team’s research shows exchanging perspectives – writing a few sentences imagining the distinct challenges of racial minorities or LGBTQ individuals, for example – can improve attitudes that last longer. So can goal-setting, where trainees commit to a personal change that can then be measured. But this also works best when training can be tailored to individual personalities and when diversity initiatives are validated by authority figures. Sessions also need to happen periodically, rather than just being a one-off. And if diversity and sensitivity training remains mandated, company leadership should frame it as a necessary step toward change as a whole – and also complete the courses themselves. 

“This is an issue of will and intention,” says Newkirk. “Instead of institutions focusing on changing hearts and minds, they can change the actual composition of their workplace through outreach, through mentoring, through doing the real work.”