Posted on January 20, 2023

What If Diversity Trainings Are Doing More Harm Than Good?

Jesse Singal, New York Times, January 17, 2023

Diversity trainings have been around for decades, long before the country’s latest round of racial reckoning. But after George Floyd’s murder — as companies faced pressure to demonstrate a commitment to racial justice — interest in the diversity, equity and inclusion (D.E.I.) industry exploded. The American market reached an estimated $3.4 billion in 2020.

{snip} Advocates make bold promises: Diversity workshops can foster better intergroup relations, improve the retention of minority employees, close recruitment gaps and so on. The only problem? There’s little evidence that many of these initiatives work. And the specific type of diversity training that is currently in vogue — mandatory trainings that blame dominant groups for D.E.I. problems — may well have a net-negative effect on the outcomes managers claim to care about.

Over the years, social scientists who have conducted careful reviews of the evidence base for diversity trainings have frequently come to discouraging conclusions. Though diversity trainings have been around in one form or another since at least the 1960s, few of them are ever subjected to rigorous evaluation, and those that are mostly appear to have little or no positive long-term effects. The lack of evidence is “disappointing,” wrote Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton and her co-authors in a 2021 Annual Review of Psychology article, “considering the frequency with which calls for diversity training emerge in the wake of widely publicized instances of discriminatory conduct.”

Dr. Paluck’s team found just two large experimental studies in the previous decade that attempted to evaluate the effects of diversity trainings and met basic quality benchmarks. Other researchers have been similarly unimpressed. “We have been speaking to employers about this research for more than a decade,” wrote the sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev in 2018, “with the message that diversity training is likely the most expensive, and least effective, diversity program around.” {snip}

If diversity trainings have no impact whatsoever, that would mean that perhaps billions of dollars are being wasted annually in the United States on these efforts. But there’s a darker possibility: Some diversity initiatives might actually worsen the D.E.I. climates of the organizations that pay for them.

That’s partly because any psychological intervention may turn out to do more harm than good. The psychologist Scott Lilienfeld made this point in an influential 2007 article in which he argued that certain interventions — including ones geared at fighting youth substance use, youth delinquency and PTSD — most likely fell into that category. In the case of D.E.I., Dr. Dobbin and Dr. Kalev warn that diversity trainings that are mandatory or that threaten dominant groups’ sense of belonging or make them feel blamed may elicit negative backlash or exacerbate biases.

Many popular contemporary D.E.I. approaches meet these criteria. They often seem geared more toward sparking a revolutionary reunderstanding of race relations than solving organizations’ specific problems. And they often blame white people — or their culture — for harming people of color. For example, the activist Tema Okun’s work cites concepts like objectivity and worship of the written word as characteristics of “white supremacy culture.” Robin DiAngelo’s “white fragility” trainings are designed to make white participants uncomfortable. And microaggression trainings are based on an area of academic literature that claims, without quality evidence, that common utterances like “America is a melting pot” harm the mental health of people of color. Many of these trainings run counter to the views of most Americans — of any color — on race and equality. And they’re generating exactly the sort of backlash that research predicts.