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This strategy works better than diversity training

If companies want to change staff’s behavior in a fundamental way, they should forget about what their employees think and focus on what they do.

This strategy works better than diversity training
[Photo: rclassenlayouts/iStock]

We know a diverse workplace is good for the bottom line. We know diversity produces better, more innovative ideas. But employers are scrambling to train workers to be aware of their unconscious biases a bit too late.

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Unfortunately, more often than not, diversity efforts come with meager results.

Quite simply, changing someone’s mind is hard. Bias is inevitable. It’s the fixture in our brain that helps drive the choices we make to keep us safe. Our brains evolved to survive, so thinking carefully about every decision would be extremely inefficient, and was even dangerous back in our hunter-gatherer days.


Related: What Starbucks anti-bias training day was like, according to employees


Frank Dobbin, a Harvard University professor of sociology, tells Fast Company that if an hour of training effectively changed minds, the world would be a chaotic place. People wouldn’t have stable personalities, attitudes, beliefs, or values. And that’s exactly the reason why there is often a negative relationship between diversity training and diversity outcomes. That’s what companies get wrong.

Instead, if companies are interested in changing people’s behavior in a fundamental way, they should forget about what their employees think and focus on what they do.

“Of course you’d like to have [employees] think differently, but the resistance that you’re likely to encounter to do that is likely to be big,” says Peter Cappelli, management professor and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. “Even trying to do it is going to irritate people, and I think you’re seeing a lot of that with the current agenda of diversity.”

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In trying to get employees to think differently, employers are hoping that workers will be less likely to discriminate and stereotype, leading to the benefits that come with a diverse workplace. But you can get those results, says Cappelli, by telling employees what to do, what behaviors they need to change, if you can make a case for why it’s important for the business.


Related: What black people have always known about diversity policies


The better employers can effectively explain why a change needs to happen for the interest of the company, the less resistance they’ll endure from their workforce. For instance, Cappelli suggests thinking about what happened at companies after the Civil Rights Act:

There were big, big changes in a lot of companies in how they treated customers and employees. They didn’t want to do that. But they understood you can easily get in trouble for not doing that. They also understand it’s pretty difficult to get in trouble for what you’re actually thinking, as opposed to what you’re doing.

You can change people’s behaviors pretty easily without necessarily changing their minds. I don’t think too many employees actually believe that shareholder value is important, and a worthy goal for organizations, and yet they still behave in a particular way. That’s good enough.

In the short term, telling employees how to behave can be an effective anti-bias training. After all, employees are used to being told what to do by their employers. In the long term, those bias behavior changes can result in long-term biased attitude changes.

Long-term, anti-bias training that works

According to Dobbin, the best way to address stereotyping and change biased thinking long-term is to make the workforce as diverse as possible on every level.

“We all have positive and negative biases against all types of groups,” he says, “but if you work next to somebody in that group as co-equals, you’ll start to individuate members of the group instead of generalize them.”

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Related: The three-step process to curtail bias in performance reviews


In his research, there are three strategies that work well to increase diversity on all levels:

1. Active recruitment programs specifically targeting minorities. Aside from the regular recruitment programs, these recruiters look specifically for women and members of minority groups. Currently, only about 15% to 20% of companies have these kinds of recruitment programs.

2. Formal mentoring systems work because they keep people around once you get them in the door. Often, these mentorship relationships become a sponsorship where the higher-ranking person is supporting and speaking up on behalf of their lower-ranking colleague. Studies show that women and members of minority groups benefit most from formal mentoring programs. Why? Dobbin explains that most white men in lower-level positions who aspire to be in management already have mentors. They don’t necessarily need formal mentoring programs. The people who lack mentors are women and members of minority groups.

3. Diversity task forces are made up of leaders from different business units responsible for coming up with solutions for diversity and help insure that they get implemented. Typically, these members meet every month or every couple of months, look at HR data, and brainstorm solutions for the company. For instance, if a company is not recruiting Hispanic engineers, then the taskforce may set up a recruitment program to look for Hispanic engineers. If the data shows that the company is having a hard time retaining women after they’ve had their first or second child, then what kind of work-life programs can the company put in place to prevent this from happening in the future? This group is typically diverse and is made up of no more than a dozen people, or it gets hard to get things done.

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About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.

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