Why Diversity Programs Fail

Diversity training doesn’t work. At least that’s one takeaway from the write-up in The Washington Post on new research published in Harvard Business Review:

In the cover story of the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review, sociologists from Harvard University and Tel Aviv University explore the counterintuitive idea that some of the most common tools for improving diversity — one of which is mandatory training — are not just ineffective. They could be detrimental to improving the number of women and minorities in the managerial ranks.

Making people attend diversity training may seem to make sense, said one of the study’s co-authors, Alexandra Kalev, in an interview: “But it doesn’t work. For decades, diversity management programs flourished with no evidence whatsoever about their effects and their success.” 

The article is based on a series of research papers by Kalev and Harvard’s Frank Dobbin that studied nearly 830 U.S. companies. It describes how, five years after implementing compulsory diversity training for managers, companies actually saw declines in the numbers of some demographic groups — African American women and Asian American men and women — and no improvement among white women and other minorities.

Some of the findings have implications even outside of the workplace:

The authors point to a range of past social science studies that have shown that efforts to reduce prejudice can backfire — actually increasing bias or leading to more hostility rather than less. In another past study, white subjects who felt forced to agree with a document about bias toward blacks felt more prejudice; those who felt they could choose felt less. The pair also say that when diversity training is just focused on a certain group — like managers or one where there’s been a bias problem — it can also have worse results…The researchers also found that other tactics often aimed at helping with diversity, such as skill tests to help prevent bias in the hiring process or grievance systems where employees can log complaints, also led to declines in the number of women and minorities in the companies’ workforces over time. Managers don’t like being told who they want to hire, so they often distribute tests selectively, Kalev said, while grievance systems can make managers feel threatened and retaliate.

Is there any hope? Yes:

Kalev said their research has shown that training programs that focus on multiculturalism and the business case for diversity — rather than the legalistic reasons behind why it’s being offered — have a less negative impact. Still, she says, “even the most fascinating diversity training will be way more efficient if the crowd is sitting there voluntarily.” 

Indeed, that’s one of the tactics their research found actually lead to more diversity among managers. Voluntary programs that let people choose whether to attend might seem futile — most people don’t think they’re biased, so might not attend — but engagement, rather than coercion, led to growth among several minority groups in Kalev’s research. Diversity managers told she and Dobbin that 80 percent of people typically do attend, even when programs are voluntary. And strong representation from leaders can be one way to help encourage people to show up.