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Diversity Training, Beyond the Standalone Workshop

Veleisa Burrell


One of the ongoing challenges for diversity and inclusion advocates in business is how to include specific training to support an inclusive workplace culture. For a period, companies focused on reactionary training to address issues that bubbled to the top via specific incident(s) or if a report made the news. The resulting workshop or speaker would focus on the one-time issue, be it sexual harassment, racial insensitivity or ageism, and assessment of the effectiveness would be little to none.

How Diversity Training Measures Up

This type of reactionary training continues to this day when companies like H&M and Gucci only move to create internal D&I bodies and install specific diversity leaders in the aftermath of a public-facing incident. However, when employees are asked about the impact of diversity training, the results are less than useful in changing the larger company culture.

When Harvard organizational sociology professor Frank Dobbin and his fellow academics did a meta-study of data points, they found diversity training had a negative effect on the hiring of Black men and white women.  Another study found that, when measuring for the three things that define our interactions with those who are different from us, diversity training had a long term effect only on knowledge but beliefs and behaviors tend to revert to pre-training status over time.

Mixed Results Show Need for Long-Term Diversity Investment

One recent study to determine the effects of diversity training on a multinational company showed mixed results. The study, which was facilitated by researchers from Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, was bias-focused training and the 3,000 participants were randomly divided into three groups: the control group, whose training was centered on the importance of cultivating psychological safety in teams, another group who focused on biases of all kinds and the final group whose course specified addressing gender bias.

The findings determined while there was a positive effect on employees who the researchers believed were the least supportive of women prior to the training, the training had little effect on the behavior of men or white employees overall, the “two groups who typically hold the most power in organizations.”

In an interview with the Knowledge@Wharton blog, researcher Edward Change stated that business leaders can’t look to “one-off diversity training to solve all of your problems relating to bias and stereotyping in the workplace.” With the research demonstrating the ongoing challenges to employ purposeful and culture-changing diversity and inclusion training, advocates may wonder what can be done. Thankfully, researchers and thought leader have provided a way forward.

Harvard Professor Dobbins noted three situations where diversity training fails: when the training is mandatory, when training mentions legality and when training is specific to managers only to the exclusion of all employees. He estimates that 75 percent of companies that offer D&I programs fall into those categories.

This short sightedness can carry a hefty price when upwards of $8 billion is being spent on diversity and inclusion training every year. Here is how a company can save time and training resources and move diversity training beyond the standard workshop.

Don’t wait until there is a problem

Companies can’t repeat the processes of years past and only implement training in reaction to an issue as opposed to making it a means to avoid instances of bias and implement a culture of inclusiveness.

Make diversity training part of onboarding

One way to help team members from entry-level to executive understand the values of your organization is to provide actionable and clear training from day one. Understanding how the company values diversity is just as important as knowing where the printer paper lives and how to claim your benefits. In fact, diversity is a benefit of your organization, one that helps companies retain employees long-term.

Diversity training as part of a larger inclusive culture

The Harvard Business Review recommends diversity training be “one part of a multi-pronged solution.” One hour workshops can’t combat both individual and systemic biases that exist. Instead companies can combine diversity training with ongoing leadership-driven cultural changes and everyday celebration of the people within a company

    Gender Equity/Diversity
    Racial Equity/Diversity

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