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Diversity Programs Don’t Work When They Stand Alone

Topics: Work Culture

Companies say they mandate diversity programs in an effort to reduce discrimination. But, a wealth of research indicates that these kinds of programs don’t generally forward those goals. We’ve known this for a long time. An article from Harvard Business Review examined this disconnect further:

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“It shouldn’t be surprising that most diversity programs aren’t increasing diversity,” wrote Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev. “Despite a few new bells and whistles, courtesy of big data, companies are basically doubling down on the same approaches they’ve used since the 1960s – which often make things worse, not better.”

Let’s take a closer look at why these programs don’t work and consider the ways we can adjust them for better results.

  1. Research shows that these programs often don’t improve diversity or reduce discrimination.

When a company institutes any kind of policy, most would agree that it makes sense to track the impact of that decision over time. It’s good business to utilize data to inform decision-making. But, all too often that has not been the case where diversity training programs are concerned. In fact, data have indicated for decades that these programs aren’t effective and yet companies continue to invest in them.

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“Do people who undergo training usually shed their biases? Researchers have been examining that question since before World War II, in nearly a thousand studies,” Dobbin and Kalev wrote. “It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash. Nonetheless, nearly half of midsize companies use it, as do nearly all the Fortune 500.”

  1. Sometimes, these programs even make things worse.

Not only are these programs ineffective when it comes to reducing discrimination or improving diversity — they can actually make things worse. Maybe it’s because people have a natural aversion to being told what to do. There is definitely an indication that mandating these training sessions makes them even less effective. Often managers are required to attend (because they’re on the front lines of decision-making and new hires) but singling them out backfires. Additionally, researchers have known for a long time that these programs can normalize discrimination in a way that’s potentially quite harmful. Telling folks that everyone has bias can actually cause some to feel more justified in their leanings. In the end, it turns out that devoting just a couple of hours toward understanding one of the most challenging societal complexities isn’t enough. Shocking.

  1. We should question why these programs are really being implemented in the first place.

Diversity programs have been around for a long time. But, institutions and businesses began to invest more into them in the last few decades. Several Wall Street firms significantly expanded their training and diversity programs following a series of lawsuits that punished the financial industry for discriminatory actions in the ’90s. Other companies followed along. But, just because these programs are common and claim to meet a certain need, that doesn’t actually mean they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, or even that they’re beneficial. Workers ought to question why programs are being implemented. When fear of litigation is the primary motivator, chances are slim for real progress.

  1. These programs can be tweaked to improve their effectiveness.

Decades of research on the effectiveness of diversity programs can be utilized to improve them. Here are a few tweaks to look out for in your own workplace.

  • Devoting more time to training might make a difference.
  • Training programs have been shown to be more effective when they’re optional.
  • Diversity or implicit bias training programs should be examined over time to determine their level of effectiveness within a given company or institution.
  1. Businesses need to go a step further.

Whenever a program like this stands alone, it’s bound to fail. A simple Band-Aid approach is never going to help a company make significant progress to such long standing and complex problems like the ones concerning gender or racial equality. Instead, companies ought to start by educating their leaders about the importance of improving diversity. It’s not just the right thing to do — it’s best for the company’s bottom line too. Real change begins with understanding. Other processes and procedures have been shown to improve diversity. Mentoring programs are one example. Another is creating diversity task forces that promote social accountability where these goals are concerned.

Through training and increased focus on results, companies can begin to turn in a better direction.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you ever attended a diversity or implicit bias training? What did you think? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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