Diversity in the Workplace
Diversity Training Isn't the Key to a Truly Inclusive Workforce — Here's Why
GaudiLab / Adobestock
Kristina Udice
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There's no denying that diversity training is important; it's crucial to educate people from different backgrounds to build a more inclusive company culture. But while the goals of a traditional diversity training program seem to be genuine and sincere, it’s long since been ineffective. Instead of promoting and growing diverse, inviting and equal company cultural awareness, businesses have instead further isolated themselves from the goals that a traditional diversity initiative aims to achieve in the first place.

What is Diversity Training?

Diversity training is a program instilled by most companies that aims to instill a greater sense of cultural awareness and cultural competency within its employees, encouraging them to appreciate their coworkers from different backgrounds. It’s an investment your company is supposedly making in you so that you further invest yourself in the company. The goal of this antiquated training session is to increase cultural sensitivities towards topics like religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age and disabilities.

Some methods of diversity training include hiring an outside diversity professional to spend a few days within the office hosting a workshop, a training session, or a class classes to increase awareness, strengthen relationships, and bring about a more culturally diverse employee population. Other methods include sending employees away on retreats where they are fully immersed in diversity training from morning until night.

What Is the History of Diversity Training?

According to Fast Company, the "Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark civil rights and labor law in the United States that made discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin illegal for employers with more than 15 employees to discriminate in hiring, termination, promotion, compensation, job training, or any other term, condition, or privilege of employment... Supplements to the law prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, age, and disability. Sexual harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation are both also now illegal under Title VII."

When a number of discrimination suits were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the late '60s and early '70s, the organizations were often tasked with training their employees in anti-discriminatory behaviors. While progress stalled in the early '80s, a book called Workforce 2000 came out in 1987, which experts tout as the impetus for business cases for diversity training. Training has since continued to evolve in the new millennium.

"Unfortunately, given the continued underrepresentation of women and minorities in most businesses as well as the continued harassment and discrimination of underrepresented groups, diversity training and inclusion initiatives still have a place in our corporate culture today," Forbes contributor Lydia Dishman writers.

Why Is Diversity Training Important?

A company that does not support diversity is not a company you'd want to work for. When all’s said and done, diversity training programs are supposed to help foster a happy, healthy and open working environment for employees. They're supposed to help employees break down walls, increase their inclinations to accept one another, and decrease bullying and discrimination.

Diversity training goes far beyond making sure employees reach their goals and get their incentives. It’s about genuinely increasing cultural diversity within the workplace. It’s about creating an inclusive environment regardless of race, gender, age, or sexual orientation. Maybe this means creating a workshop dedicated more closely to inclusion training. Maybe it means taking the time to educate instead of dictate. But whatever it is, it needs to be done fast. The future of our society depends on it.

But with all a diversity training programs' hopes and happy ideas, they still tend to fall short when it comes to meeting goals.

Why Do Diversity Training Programs Sometimes Fall Short?

First and foremost, employees resist. And can you blame them?

It’s almost natural, really. When you’re told to do something, you immediately fight against it. That’s what happens as a result of traditional diversity training. Employees go to the seminars, they listen to the lectures, they’re told how to think and speak and act. And then they rebel like 16-year-old high school juniors all over again. Very little good can come from dictating to a T how employees are supposed to treat one another. They are all adults, after all. And no adult wants to be spoken down to.

Traditional diversity training also tends to come off as a joke, and employees will have a field day making fun of the lessons they learn as opposed to absorbing them and using what they’ve learned in real-world situations. Instead, participants will turn to their cliques and make jokes at the presenter's expense. It becomes a giant waste of time, energy and money for all involved.

It’s also a highly antiquated training process, with most programs reiterating the same beliefs and mantras that began in the 1960s. Society has grown since diversity training was first introduced, and diversity training needs to grow along with it. Company culture has a much greater sense of diversity and inclusion than it was 40 years ago. That’s not to say there isn’t room to grow because there absolutely is — it’s vital, of course. But the ways of the past aren’t going to propel us into the future anytime soon.

A recent investigation by the Harvard Business Review uncovered some tensions that arise when companies begin their standard diversity training processes. According to the report, which took commentary and statistics from different companies using different forms of diversity training, initiatives put in place by the company as rewards for diversity seem to have an adverse effect.

Outside of the traditional college seminar-esque methods of diversity training are things called initiatives. These tactics sometimes require employees to take certain assessments dictating their skill levels when it comes to reducing hiring bias. Others include bonuses and performance rating increases that are tied to diversity training initiatives. These lead to employees feeling slighted because they aren’t meeting what they see as unachievable standards, thus missing out on pay raises, bonuses, and promotions.

The problem, this study found, was that by giving people perks for being diverse and performing these seemingly arbitrary and meaningless tasks, they were creating an environment of resentment within the company as opposed to fostering one of equality and synergy. Participants weren’t learning anything from these culture programs or tasks other than how they were being negatively impacted by them.

In the same report, authors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev wrote: "Those [diversity initiatives] are designed to preempt lawsuits by policing managers' thoughts and actions. Yet laboratory studies show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out. As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy. Try to coerce me to do X, Y, or Z, and I’ll do the opposite just to prove that I’m my own person."

What Are More Successful Ways Companies Can Foster Diversity?

Increasing diversity benefits the workplace and decreasing biases is vital, but the tactics and methods aimed at achieving a diverse workforce need to change along with the times. Focusing less on incentives in the workforce, and more on the diversity issues through empathy and emotion could have a greater appeal not just in the short term, but in the long run as well. Our corporate diversity training needs to be more about people and culture itself, and less about statistics in order for people to care about it.

Research suggests that voluntary training programs, college recruitment aimed at women and minorities, and the addition of mentorship programs, diversity task forces and diversity managers can all improve diversity over time. For example, according to sociologists from Harvard University and Tel Aviv University who published research in the Havard Business Review, creating a diversity task force within a company has led to a 30 percent increase in Asian men and a 23 percent increase in black women over five years.

Likewise, in her piece "This Strategy Works Better Than Diversity Training," Fast Company writer Vivian Giang, suggests that, "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." 

"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," she writes. "But you can get those results... 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... 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."

She, too, encourages the recruitment of minorities, mentorship programs and diversity task forces.

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