Employee Diversity Training Doesn’t Work

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, Time Magazine, April 26, 2007

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A groundbreaking new study by three sociologists shows that diversity training has little to no effect on the racial and gender mix of a company’s top ranks. Frank Dobbin of Harvard, Alexandra Kalev of the University of California, Berkeley, and Erin Kelly of the University of Minnesota sifted through decades of federal employment statistics provided by companies. Their analysis found no real change in the number of women and minority managers after companies began diversity training. That’s rightnone. Networking didn’t do much, either. Mentorships did. Among the least common tactics, oneassigning a diversity point person or task forcehas the best record of success. “Companies have spent millions of dollars a year on these programs without actually knowing, Are these efforts worth it?” Dobbin says. “In the case of diversity training, the answer is no.”

The law is one reason that employers favor diversity training. In the wake of whopping settlements in race-discrimination suits against large companies, including Texaco and Coca-Cola, over the past decade, employers believe that having a program in place can show a judge that they are sincerely fighting prejudice. But this too is a myth, says Dobbin: “I don’t know of a single case where courts gave credit for diversity training.”

Social psychologists have many theories to explain why diversity training doesn’t work as intended. Studies show that any training generates a backlash and that mandatory diversity training in particular may even activate a bias. Researchers also see evidence of “irresistible stereotypes,” or biases so deeply ingrained that they simply can’t be taught away in a one-day workshop.

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So what does work? The study’s findings in this area were striking too: at companies that assigned a person or committee to oversee diversity, ensuring direct accountability for results, the number of minorities and women climbed 10% in the years following the appointment. Mentorships worked too, particularly for black women, increasing their numbers in management 23.5%. Most effective is the combination of all these strategies, says Dobbin.

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