Future of Work
Diversity training part 1: Does diversity training work?

Diversity training part 1: Does diversity training work?

Cathy Reisenwitz
Content, Clockwise
November 6, 2022

Diversity training part 1: Does diversity training work?
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Since the protests over the police killing of George Floyd, companies have been looking for ways to combat racial bias and discrimination at work. The stats are jarring. In one study, hiring managers were 74% more likely to hire candidates with white-sounding names when their resumes were identical. Despite research showing that teams with more diversity perform better than more homogeneous teams, Black and Latino workers remain underrepresented in STEM.

Just 3.1% of American tech workers are Black, and Silicon Valley is just 3% Black. And things may actually be getting worse. Around 1% of tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are Black, and Black Americans are severely underrepresented in leadership positions at influential technology companies. In 2017 Fast Company reported there were fewer Black women in tech than there were in 2007.

Nearly every Fortune 500 company offers some variety of diversity training, yet diverse workers still face bias and discrimination. We refer to these classes as implicit bias training, unconscious bias training, and anti-bias training. In theory, the classes will reduce bias against certain groups, such as women and BIPOC, by making people aware of their biases.

Often, diversity training is the go-to after a diversity PR disaster. For example, after a Starbucks barista stopped a Black man from using their restroom without buying something, the company closed 8,000 stores for a half day to put 175,000 workers through diversity training.

These diversity training programs aren’t cheap. U.S. companies spend approximately $8 billion every year on diversity training. It cost Starbucks around $12 million in lost business alone.

Lately, we’ve been delving into how to build tech ethically, how to hire inclusively, and how tech can stand for justice. We’re also deciding which diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to invest in.

This three-part series will investigate the evidence for and against diversity training, why most diversity training fails, and what companies can do to increase their diversity, equity, and inclusion effectively.

An extremely brief history of diversity training

The idea behind diversity training comes from a team of social psychologists at the University of Washington and Yale. They developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which is meant to measure “the unconscious roots of prejudice” that affects 90-95% of people. The idea was that once people became aware of their unconscious biases, they’d work toward correcting them.

Companies deliver diversity training to help make employees more aware of workplace diversity issues and their own biases. And when conducted effectively, training attendants receive tools and skills to support behavior changes that help them correct their biases. Awareness, knowledge, and communication are at the core of these trainings. Diversity training can teach individuals how to work together effectively in the workplace, despite their differences. 

What does diversity training in the workplace cover?

What exactly do people mean when they talk about diversity training? It depends on who you ask. Many types of diversity training programs cover various topics related to diverse, equitable, and inclusive cultures. 

Below is a non-exhaustive list of the topics and skills organizations incorporate into their diversity training programs in alphabetical order. Some of these categories are awareness-based, and others are skill-based. Both are valuable and crucial components of diversity training programs.

  • Anti-harassment 
  • Diversity (age, cultural, disability, gender, generational, racial, religious, sexual orientation)
  • Microaggressions  
  • Inclusivity and what that means at work
  • Prejudices and reducing them
  • Racial equity 
  • Stereotyping 
  • Unconscious bias 

Organizations should identify and prioritize topics based on their needs as no two organizational groups are the same. Covering all of the issues on the list won’t necessarily make your diversity training program effective. 

Is diversity training effective? What the research says

Hundreds of studies show that bias training doesn’t produce its intended effects.

“Diversity training is likely the most expensive, and least effective, diversity program around,” Frank Dobbin, professor of sociology at Harvard, and Alexandra Kalev, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University, wrote for Anthropology Now.

Let’s dig a little deeper into what the studies say.

Dobbin and Kalev go on in their paper to cite numerous studies and meta-analyses that find little evidence that training reduces bias. Even when anti-bias training improved how well people understood or how people felt about diversity, it rarely changed their behavior.

However, the researchers also found a lack of evidence to support the idea that diversity training reliably changes hearts and minds. When they looked at 426 studies where participants took the IAT test before and after anti-bias training, the meta-analysis found the training barely impacted unconscious bias and altered explicit bias even less.

One comparison of 17 interventions found that eight reduced white people’s unconscious bias against Black people. A follow-up experiment tested those eight interventions and one fake intervention. All nine seemed to work, indicating that participants may learn how to game the bias test rather than unlearning their biases. Furthermore, the effects dissipated within days.

A recent article in The Lancet referred to a recent meta-analysis showing diversity training to be largely ineffective at reducing inequality.

The IAT itself has a reproducibility problem. “Multiple studies have found IAT results are not strongly reproducible in an individual: one day you might have a ‘moderate’ bias and the next day you might come out in the clear,” The Guardian Science Correspondent Hannah Devlin wrote. It may also exacerbate bias. Devlin points to an experiment where aboriginal Canadians reported feeling less valued by white people who took a race-based version of the IAT than white people who took a different version.

However, there are some researchers who take the opposite view. “We believe that pessimism is premature,” Alex Lindsey, Eden King, Ashley Membere, and Ho Kwan Cheung write for HBR. “A recent meta-analysis of over 40 years of diversity training evaluations showed that diversity training can work, especially when it targets awareness and skill development and occurs over a significant period of time.”

Why isn’t bias training enough on its own?

In an interview with Firsthand, our CEO, Matt Martin, explained the gap between training and decreasing unconscious bias. The answer lies in the fact that training isn’t always enough to inspire actual behavioral changes.

“At the end of the day, the short answer is that we still don’t really understand how to change people’s minds or their behavior. At best, bias training makes people aware of how they currently see things and gives them another way to see them. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough. My takeaway from the research is that bias training is not effective on its own, and absolutely shouldn't be seen as an effective way to change behavior. But, if implemented as part of a larger set of efforts, it can be a helpful starting point for a larger conversation,” Matt said.

Even when we help individuals change their attitudes and mindset through education and awareness, lasting behavior change is a commitment that requires more than one-off training sessions.

What makes diversity training programs most effective?

Organizations can’t build and sustain an effective diversity training program and inclusive workplace overnight. It requires some analysis and strategic planning to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization and certainly more than performative efforts.

To address DEI issues with an organization, Culture Amp recommends a “Define, Design, and Deliver” (3D) framework for a higher likelihood of success. Here’s a summarized recap of how to apply the 3D framework to organizational DEI efforts.

Define what you’re trying to solve

It’s easy to fall into the trap of conducting diversity training without identifying the root problems and what you want to solve within your organization. As a first step, Culture Amp encourages organizations to slow down and identify specific DEI issues and relevant data. A diversity and inclusion survey, demographics, and small focus groups may be good places to start in terms of data collection. Understand your company’s current recruitment process, hiring practices, and retention, in addition to employee perceptions of the workplace. Gathering this data upfront will help inform the rest of the DEI strategy. 

For example, we worked with Culture Amp to put out our first Diversity and Inclusion Survey to establish a baseline and have metrics to track over time. Beyond a mere percentage of employees from underrepresented groups, the survey measures equity and inclusion through access to resources, career opportunities, decision-making practices in the organization, and general belonging.

Design solutions to address the issues

After gathering data and analyzing stakeholder feedback, focus on identifying impactful and tailored solutions to address the root issues. To create the most impactful solutions, it’s essential to crowdsource and co-design ideas from various employees throughout the organization. This approach helps ensure that solutions address the concerns of all employees and that diversity training will effectively meet the needs of the organization. 

Possible solutions include more than diversity training, but the training itself can and should connect back to other strategic interventions to create a full picture. Other approaches can consist of hiring and recruitment assessments, diversity mentorship programs, office hours sessions, audits of company values, and more. 

Deliver lasting results

You need to implement and monitor DEI efforts for long-term success, which includes identifying and sharing metrics for measuring progress. There’s no way to determine whether a DEI strategy and training program are fulfilling the needs of the organization without some measure of what a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace means. 

Don’t expect efforts to be perfect the first time around. It’s a process that requires experimentation, iteration, data collection, and willingness to try. And part of delivering lasting results includes holding stakeholders—from senior leaders down to individual contributors—accountable for this work.

Going forward

Especially in light of recent events, Clockwise and many other companies are looking for ways to combat racial (and other types of) bias and discrimination at work. While diversity training is a popular and intuitive place to start, the research shows starting and stopping there isn’t likely to measurably increase diversity, equity, and inclusion. Effective diversity training programs should tie back to a larger, well-thought-out DEI strategy to add more value.

In the next post in the series, we’ll examine why diversity training usually fails to achieve its goals.

About the author

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is the former Head of Content at Clockwise. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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