If diversity training doesn’t work, why do companies do it?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Diversity training is practically useless when it comes to helping companies diversify their management ranks, according to a recent study by Harvard University sociologist Frank Dobbin.

After poring through 30 years of data from more than 700 corporations, Dobbin concluded that the most successful programs were those that established direct accountability for diversity. Networking and mentoring programs also had a modest positive effect. But diversity training was by far the least effective initiative at increasing the number of white women, black women, and black men in management.

Frankly, I’m not surprised by Dobbin’s findings.

From what I’ve seen, diversity training rarely succeeds at reducing stereotyping and bias within organizations.

Why? Because many diversity trainers actually teach people to hide their racism.

Yes, you read that correctly. Many diversity trainers don’t push people to challenge their own racist beliefs. Instead, the seminars teach people to be more aware of the non-verbal cues (the fancy word is “microinequities”) they send out that may tip others off to their racism. The philosophy is: hide your racism in order to create a more harmonious workplace.

Diversity training also fails because so many companies make it mandatory. Think about how that makes the average employee feel:

John walks into the diversity training session room already feeling resentful. The company may have made this mandatory, but his boss still expects him to make up for the lost hours of productivity by working late.

He thinks to himself that this is a total waste of time. He’s not a racist, he doesn’t even notice color! So obviously the diversity training isn’t meant for him. He tunes out the diversity trainer and turns on his Blackberry so he can catch up on email.

Bored, he looks around the room and wonders which one of his colleagues is to blame for this. Someone must have screwed up by saying something racist. And thanks to that jerk, the whole company is being forced to sit through this dog and pony show.

Does this sound like a person who is receptive to exploring his conscious and unconscious prejudices?

So if diversity training doesn’t reduce bias or increase managerial diversity, why do companies continue to spend millions of dollars on it every single year?

Because they’re afraid of costly lawsuits.

Companies are twice as likely to invest in diversity training than any other type of diversity initiative because their real motivation is to mitigate risk.

If a company gets sued for racial discrimination, it can point to its diversity training program as a good faith effort to eliminate racial discrimination and hopefully win the lawsuit.

The sad truth is, many companies could care less about increasing racial diversity among their managers.

Sure, they plaster photos of smiling employees of color all over their web sites, make obligatory recruiting stops at Spelman and Morehouse, and use the same diversity buzzwords as everybody else. But paying lip service to diversity is largely a PR exercise for them.

Ultimately for most companies, diversity training isn’t about nurturing diversity in the workplace. It’s about protecting the company.

Learn how New Demographic can help you facilitate relaxed, authentic, and productive conversations about race and racism.

Trackbacks & Pings

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Comments

  1. andre koen wrote:

    I think you point is well taken.
    I believe that it is time to look at diversity differently. Cultural competences might provide a light on how we can more to this new position.

    Andre Koen
    http://WWW.amhorizons.com

  2. Craig wrote:

    Yes,

    Just last week I had to do some diversity e-learning (there’s another target for you.)

    It specifically said to hide your prejudices at work.

    Sure… whatever dudes.

    Hopefully now the word is out they won’t be able to hide behind their mandatory training for much longer.

  3. more cowbell wrote:

    I think there is a lot of validity to this. I also think it depends on the training, and the circumstances surrounding who is there (and who isn’t). My employer has sponsered the Undoing Racism training for the past 4 years — a 2day workshop that goes into the history of institutionalized racism and how that has been constructed, white privilege and other things. It’s been very effective for a lot of folks. (Others, not so much, but you’re always going to have that dynamic at any training) I think the key is to get to the real issues, the things that white people may not have ever learned about — not some once a year hour-long required surface deal, or worse, on-line training. Teach WHY the “colorblind” mentality doesn’t work. Show them why they are privileged and why racism includes built-in advantage for some, not just disadvantage for others. Anyway, good post, I do agree that happens a lot. I think the fluff trainings are a waste of time/money and may make things worse, but there are some trainings out there that are effective.

  4. more cowbell wrote:

    Oh, I meant to add that I absolutely agree there is a CYA factor to companies offering diversity training. I’ve seen situations personally where they point to their list of “diversity accomplishments” to absolve themselves of making any kind of meaningful change.

  5. Max wrote:

    I was terminated after filing a EEO Complaint after 4 1/2 years of employment - I was informed that this was an “illegal” action by my employer, what happens next?

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