Diversity Training Doesn’t Work

Peter Bregman, Harvard Business Review, March 12, 2012

“We’ve got another lawsuit,” my friend and client Lana* told me over the phone.

“Really?” I was honestly surprised. “What about all that diversity training everyone went through?”

“Well, apparently we need to do it again.”

Lana was the head of Human Resources for Bedia, a company in the media industry that felt, at times, like an old boy’s network. Diversity wasn’t just a professional issue for her; she cared about it personally.

Over the years, there had been a number of incidents at Bedia in which individuals had felt misunderstood, mistreated, or disrespected. Eventually, someone sued.

In the most recent situation, someone used a word in a letter that felt derogatory to a number of African Americans. Before that, someone sent a sexist joke around the office and a female co-worker was offended. There were other incidents too.

Bedia had tried to address the issue in a diversity training that carefully outlined what people were allowed to say, and what they weren’t.

They also tried diversity training that brought groups of people into a room and asked them to separate into categories. Some of the categories were more self-evident like gender, age, and ethnicity. Other categories were more subtle, like experiences they’d had, likes and dislikes, and beliefs. Each group was asked to share a little about how they saw themselves as an attempt to educate the others.

Still, the problem persisted. The organization was tense and the CEO worried that, eventually, Bedia would end up in another lawsuit.

He was right.

That’s when Lana called me. Would I do diversity training?

There are two reasons to do diversity training. One is to prevent lawsuits. The other is to create an inclusive environment in which each member of the community is valued, respected, and can fully contribute their talents. That includes reducing bias and increasing the diversity of the employee and management population.

Lana made it clear to me that Bedia was interested in the second reason, not just the first, and I agreed to investigate.

But after speaking with a number of people in the organization, it confirmed a feeling that had been pestering me for years:

Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice. It promotes it.

At first glance, the first training—the one that outlined what people could and couldn’t say—didn’t seem to hurt. But on further inspection, it turns out it did.

The scenarios quickly became the butt of participant jokes. And, while the information was sound, it gave people a false sense of confidence since it couldn’t possibly cover every single situation.

The second training—the one that categorized people—was worse. Just like the first training, it was ridiculed, ironically in ways that clearly violated the recommendations from the first training. And rather than changing attitudes of prejudice and bias, it solidified them.

This organization’s experience is not an exception. It’s the norm.

study of 829 companies over 31 years showed that diversity training had “no positive effects in the average workplace.” Millions of dollars a year were spent on the training resulting in, well, nothing. Attitudes—and the diversity of the organizations—remained the same.

{snip}

Categories are dehumanizing. They simplify the complexity of a human being. So focusing people on the categories increases their prejudice.

The solution? Instead of seeing people as categories, we need to see people as people. Stop training people to be more accepting of diversity. It’s too conceptual, and it doesn’t work.

Instead, train them to do their work with a diverse set of individuals. Not categories of people. People.

{snip}

*Names and some details changed.

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