Harvard Business Review: Diversity Training

The three articles on diversity in the July-August 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review conclude that mandatory diversity training fails to produce positive results. I have led training in diversity and cultural competence for several thousand people and have a different point of view.

Dobbin and Kalev claim that mandatory diversity training does not change hiring decisions and will therefore not increase diversity within an organization, but voluntary training can have the desired effect. The Iris Bohnet interview begins with the assertion that “firms are wasting their money on diversity training,” and later echoes Dobbin’s conclusion that diversity training generally does not change attitudes or behavior. Burrell references Daniel Kahneman’s position that “trying to outsmart bias at the level of the individual is a fool’s errand, even with training.”

There are several problems with these opinions. To begin with, diversity training has not been standardized. On one end of the training spectrum it may consist of a thirty-minute powerpoint presentation focused on employment law. On the other end it may be a four-week training with intensive interactive exercises designed to shake the participants’ deeply held beliefs about cultural groups whom they overtly or implicitly fear or dislike. An evaluation that treats these training programs as one variable is without merit.

There is in fact evidence that some types of training do change implicit bias and attitudes about diversity. , But perhaps more importantly, the authors in the HBR issue miss other evaluation results worth considering. Diversity training is but one component of a larger movement to change social norms regarding racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, etc.

For example, despite this past year’s political campaign, fewer people today feel comfortable making overtly racist comments than in years past because the relevant social norms have changed. Many people would be rejected by their communities if they openly expressed bigotry. They may continue to have implicit biases that affect hiring decisions and this problem requires continued social action. It should not be ignored that as an interim step to creating true equality in the workplace, more people intentionally resist behaving in an overtly racist manner. More people have an internal sense that bigotry is morally wrong or they simply fear a negative reaction from their communities. In either case, they restrain their negative impulses. Perhaps diversity training has been part of this important step.

An important goal of diversity training is what I call “Managing Your Prejudices.” As discussed by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman and many others, it is natural for people to instantly to place others into categories based on race, gender, accent, body type, etc. Our automatic thoughts and feelings about others are based upon stereotypes we see in movies or on TV, or something our parents told us about “those people”. Similar to how a recovering alcoholics learn to manage their alcoholism, people can learn to manage their prejudices. This begins with an acknowledgement that, “I have prejudices and I will always have prejudices.”

Diversity training can facilitate self-reflection. “I don’t feel comfortable with this job applicant because of her religion or the color of her skin, or her accent, gender, or body type. That’s my prejudice talking to me, based upon something I have seen on TV, someone I have known in the past, or something my mother told me. My thoughts may have nothing to do with this individual. Maybe I should review her credentials and give her a chance.” Diversity training can teach people to construct this sort of interior dialogue so they can make decisions independent of their implicit biases. Evaluation of this type of diversity training may prove it to be effective.

Devine, Patricia. G, et.al, “Long-Term Reduction in Implicit Race Bias: A Prejudice Habit-Breaking Intervention.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology” November, 2012 48(6) 12-67-1278.
Kalinoski, Zachary T. et.al. “A Meta-Analytic Evaluation of Diversity Training Outcomes” Journal of Organizational Behavior, November, 2012, 34. 1076-1104
Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (April 2, 2013)