Updated: Jan 15
All too often, these programs are ineffective and short-lived. But they don’t have to be.
Diversity trainings, whether implemented out of a desire to improve corporate practices or in response to a public relations crisis, have become a mainstay of American organizational life. By one estimate, they are an $8 billion-a-year industry.
Is that money actually creating meaningful change? In recent years, some social scientists have argued that it isn’t. And studies show little conclusive evidence that diversity trainings shift attitudes and behaviours in a lasting way.
But in a new paper, Ivuoma Onyeador, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, argues that we shouldn’t give up so quickly. She and her coauthors—Evelyn R. Carter of Paradigm Strategy Inc. and Neil A. Lewis Jr. of Cornell University—reviewed the existing research on diversity trainings and used that data to make evidence-based recommendations on how to improve them.
“Diversity trainings aren’t going anywhere. I think that they will continue to be part of the toolkit that organizations use to manage their climate,” Onyeador says. She and her coauthors “wanted to offer some guidance about how those trainings can be as effective as possible, so that people who are implementing them have a realistic sense of what they can do.”
Here, Onyeador offers five recommendations for building a better diversity training program.
Be Realistic about What Training Can Change—and What It Can’t
Too often, organizations roll out diversity training with aims like “improve our culture and our company” or “shift our culture”—aspirations so lofty they can’t possibly be addressed through training alone.
Truly changing an organization’s culture to make it more diverse and inclusive takes years, not hours, and it requires tools beyond training sessions. “There needs to be a multipronged approach to improving diversity and inclusion,” Onyeador says.
Training, she and her coauthors found, is much more likely to be successful when it’s paired with other offerings, such as systems that hold workers and leaders accountable for reducing bias, a well-functioning bias-response process, and networking opportunities for employees from underrepresented groups.
And it’s important to understand that there are worthwhile goals that trainings can’t achieve.
For example, “if the goal is to increase diversity at the managerial level, there may need to be a different intervention,” Onyeador says. She points to a 2006 study of 700 organizations that found that trainings failed to increase the ranks of Black and Latino managers—and sometimes even caused managerial diversity to decline. A combination of mentorship programs and diversity oversight structures, by contrast, increased managerial diversity by 40 percent.
Set Better Goals, and Give Employees the Tools to Reach Them
So what is a realistic goal for a diversity training program?
Onyeador, Carter, and Lewis found that most effective diversity training programs help participants identify and reduce bias. “That’s what we argue is the proper outcome of a training,” Onyeador says.
It’s important that participants walk away with not just an awareness of bias, but also with specific tools to help them behave differently in the future. “Some people do want to change their behaviour, but they don’t know how,” Onyeador says. It’s best, she and her coauthors propose, for facilitators to leave participants with two to three concrete strategies.
However, even the relatively modest aim of helping employees acknowledge and reduce bias may require larger investments of time and effort than many organizations are used to. Unlearning patterns learned over the course of a lifetime is a gradual process. For that reason, Onyeador suggests a series of workshops instead of a one-off training session.
Looking back on her own experiences as an undergraduate, “there was some diversity content at the beginning of the year, and then we never addressed any of it again,” Onyeador recalls. “A different approach might have been to have a series of all-campus conversations throughout the year. Obviously, it’s hard to coordinate, but it sends a signal that this is really important.”
Follow-up and reinforcement is essential. One study the authors reviewed found that accountability structures, such as affirmative-action plans, diversity taskforces, and departments devoted to diversity, produced significantly better outcomes than trainings alone. Another study suggested that, without reinforcement, bias can return to its pre-training levels in just 24 hours.
Get Comfortable with Discomfort
Often, companies are wary of diversity trainings because they’re afraid of making employees uncomfortable. It’s an understandable instinct: people from both racial majority and minority groups feel anxious when they talk about race and prefer to avoid the topic. Discussions of racism can also bring about defensive reactions among members of racial majority groups.
These kinds of anxieties have led many organizations to embrace trainings centered around the idea of implicit bias—the idea that unconscious attitudes and stereotypes shape our behaviour. “One of the reasons people use the implicit-bias framing is that it makes participants, white participants in particular, less defensive,” Onyeador explains.
“It’s really important that the training does not assume that everyone in the audience is a potential perpetrator of prejudice, but acknowledge that some people are targets.”
Taking time to acknowledge what it’s like to be on the receiving end of prejudice—and calling attention to resources for reporting mistreatment—may actually benefit majority group members, she points out: hearing what it’s like to be a victim “can increase empathy, and help with perspective-taking.”
Measure Efficacy, Not Just Preference
“All too often, training is conducted but not evaluated,” Onyeador says. “Not just evaluations of how people felt about the training, but assessing longitudinally what were you hoping that the training would change and do.”
Failure to measure can doom well-intentioned efforts. Without evidence for the value of training, leaders may not be persuaded to continue paying for it. That’s why setting the right goals at the outset is so important: if you know what you wanted employees to do differently, you can figure out whether or not they actually did it.
For example, Onyeador and her coauthors highlight The Ohio State College of Medicine’s efforts to increase the diversity of their incoming class. After a training aimed at helping admissions counselors identify how bias might be influencing their admittance decisions, the diversity of the next class rose by 26%. What’s more, admissions counselors reported being more alert to bias when reading applications.
Organizations should also understand that how employees felt about a training isn’t always a good indicator of how much they learned. In general, employees prefer voluntary training to mandatory training—but studies show participants in voluntary programs learn less than employees in mandatory programs.
In other words, participants can learn whether or not they enjoy the process.
Commit to Ongoing Work
It’s true that there are a lot of bad diversity training programs out there, Onyeador says.
“I’ve seen some cringeworthy ones,” she says—trainings that seemed poorly planned, led by facilitators who seem unprepared to answer questions or who were not supported by leadership.
But the existence of so many ineffective programs doesn’t mean we should give up on the idea of training altogether. In fact, it’s an invitation to commit more deeply to diversity efforts. The best training programs Onyeador and her coauthors observed were bolstered by “lots of investment on the front end, and inclusion in a broader diversity strategy,” she says.
As the authors write, “it is not reasonable to expect a transformation to come from training alone. However, a well-designed training program can be a catalyst that produces ripple effects within an organization, a community, and beyond.”