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Diversity Training Myths Your Company Needs To Drop Now

Don’t believe everything you hear about how to bring diversity to your team.

Diversity Training Myths Your Company Needs To Drop Now
[Photo: Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury/Getty Images]

Diversity training has been one of those buzz terms making the rounds at companies big and small for decades. But while businesses understand that change needs to happen from the top down, social scientists have found that the approaches many companies take are often vastly misguided.

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“Hundreds of workplaces and schools use some form of diversity training,” writes Princeton psychologist Betsy Levy Paluck in her research on the topic. “But most interventions are not grounded in theory, and there is little evidence of program impact.”

In fact, many of the widely accepted practices used by companies today may have the opposite effect of decreasing diversity among managers, social scientists have found.

In one of the most comprehensive studies on the subject, researchers looked at more than three decades of data on diversity initiatives at hundreds of companies across the U.S. to determine their impact. Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin, one of the researchers who spearheaded that study, spoke with Fast Company about the myths still widely accepted in diversity training today, their dangers, and what companies can do to make a far better impact.

Mandatory Training Is A Mistake

Many diversity trainers talk about the need to make training programs mandatory rather than voluntary, says Dobbin. But while that may seem like a good idea at first blush–of course important issues ought to be prioritized rather than simply made optional–that tactic often backfires. “Ironically, if you make it mandatory, training programs lead to decreases in the diversity of management teams,” says Dobbin. “When you make it mandatory, you send the message that it’s just there for legal compliance.”

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Psychologists have long known that when you force people to do something without giving them a choice, cognitive dissonance–feelings of discomfort caused by contradictory emotions that lead people to change their attitudes–can kick in. “If you force someone to go to something, they don’t have to try to make their beliefs and actions line up,” says Dobbin. “In fact, you can think, ‘I’m only here because they forced me to do this.'”

Instead, training programs like the one Google began offering on unconscious bias last year should always be optional so that employees don’t feel like they’re being forced to go.

Targeting Managers Can Backfire

Another common diversity training practice is targeting managers and creating training programs specifically for them. Again, this seems to make a lot of sense on the surface. Managers are the ones delegating and working closely with employees, after all. They have the most direct impact on the people working for them. But like mandatory training, focusing on managers alone sends the signal that a company is simply trying to avoid getting into hot water.

“A lot of the diversity training for managers tends to be about the law,” says Dobbin. “When there is special training for managers, they take the message that the employer is trying to prevent them from getting sued.”

Dobbin estimates that approximately a quarter of all diversity training programs focus on the legal side of hiring and firing, which not only sends a negative message to managers, but also leads to a decrease in diversity among managers. “If what you are trying to do is increase the diversity of the workforce, training isn’t going to do it,” he says. “You can’t really change people’s biases with training.”

Don’t Blame–Engage

The approach that diversity training programs take to deliver their message often comes across as alienating and discouraging. Such training programs are often designed to help people notice the ways in which they are biased. But this method, says Dobbin, can backfire. “It puts [managers] at the center of the problem. If you do a training for managers–even when it’s focused on bias awareness–the message they get is that they are the problem,” he says. “If you’re trying to change the workplace, that’s a negative message.”

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The key to effective diversity initiatives, research has shown, comes not in mandatory manager training, but rather in finding ways to engage managers to contribute to their company’s diversity efforts. For example, encouraging managers to volunteer as mentors to underrepresented employees is one of the most successful diversity efforts taken on by companies. “They get engaged in trying to help people in their careers. They become the champions of those people,” says Dobbin. This approach has helped in addressing the issue of women not being promoted as often as men, for one. Getting managers to serve on diversity task forces that engage them in discussions about recruiting and mentoring programs is another approach that most resonated with employees.

“The problem in the tech industry, and in corporate America, is that blaming managers is a lot more popular than engaging them,” Dobbin and his coresearcher, Alexandra Kalev, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times last year.

“Diversity training, annual performance ratings, and civil-rights grievance systems are ubiquitous,” says Dobbin. “Mentoring, special college recruitment, management-training enrollment, and diversity task forces are rare.”

About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction.

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