Let’s Get Real About Diversity Training

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Fran S.

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Diversity training is a multimillion-dollar industry. There is no doubt a place for educating employers and employees about the challenges of our increasingly diverse workplace, and to focus on skills that will help those differences to add value, rather than dissonance. Increasingly, however, the evaluative literature on diversity training is less than encouraging.

The authors of this study, from Harvard, UC Berkeley and the University of Minnesota attempted to explore the relationship of different kinds of workplace initiatives on actual improvements in workplace representation in the managerial ranks. Looking at diversity councils, designated diversity managers, affirmative action plans, diversity training, mentorship programs and other kinds of initiatives, the authors correlated these initiatives to the numbers of white and black men and women in the management ranks of 700 private sector companies. Their conclusions? The strongest relationship between actual diverse representation and management ranks came from “responsibility structures,” such as affirmative action plans or designated diversity officers. The weakest? Diversity training. In fact, diversity training was sometimes followed by a negative impact on the numbers of women and minorities in management positions.

While one might take these conclusions to imply that diversity training is not a great investment, it is worth considering the underlying implications of this study — an implication that many diversity consultants have been broadcasting for years. Organizations change when there is accountability for that change. Not surprisingly, affirmative action plans and identified champions set visible goals and establish a path towards implementing them. Diversity Councils put people in high visibility situations which are measured by results. In these cases, getting the “bodies in the door” becomes a success measure, and those designated to do so will drive results.

So, where does this leave us with diversity training? First of all, we must be clear about what this training is. The old days of debunking stereotypes but substituting new ones are gone. Diversity training should be focused on cross-cultural, cross-gender, cross-class and cross-style communications, effective conflict management (because those diverse “bodies” are going to be heading towards some pretty divergent points of view) and self-awareness. The behaviors and skills should be integrated into leadership development programs and performance measures. Individuals should be held accountable to demonstrate the skills taught in the class and rewarded and recognized for excelling. When this takes place, and there are companies committed to this level of training, it may not result in more diverse faces at the table, but it certainly will make that diversity thrive and remain functional.

What this study does not tell us is that the “capture” of diverse leaders is frequently followed in five to seven years by talent drainage due to lack of cultural fit. In fact, the study did note that there were modest positive gains when diversity training was paired with other accountability mechanisms. Diversity training is not a recruiting or hiring tool. It will not get the people in the door or to the table, but, done right, it can make the table a much more successful place — a place that everyone will want to stick around.


Fran S.

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