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Diversity Training: Who’s still biased?

Diversity training has swept corporate America. Just one problem: It doesn’t seem to work.

There’s little evidence that diversity training works
…. And research by a team of sociologists on more than 800 companies over three decades has found that the best diversity training programs make little difference in who gets hired and promoted, and many programs actually decrease the number of women and minorities in management.

“Even with best practices, you’re not going to get much of an effect,” says Frank Dobbin, a Harvard University sociology professor on the research team. “It doesn’t change what happens at work.”

Critics, on the other hand, argue that today’s practitioners are unlikely to be converging on a set of best practices, since the field is characterized by divergent, even contradictory approaches to the same set of problems. To critics, the proponents are simply mistaking the fact that people feel better about themselves after training for real results. Just because people think they’re less prejudiced doesn’t mean they are. Indeed, with something as subtle and reflexive as bias, we’re often our own worst judges.

A whole “diversity management” industry arose to meet – and encourage – the need, and large companies began creating diversity task forces and hiring chief diversity officers.

Social scientists, meanwhile, had been studying bias for decades: Psychologists looked at it in the lab, economists examined its effect on housing and other markets, sociologists studied the way it shaped neighborhoods and schools and even workplaces. But, aside from a few examples like Lewin’s work at MIT, the research literature had largely limited itself to diagnosing problems rather than proposing solutions to them.

The current crop of diversity research is an attempt to address that gap. The researchers are driven, at least in part, by the desire to find prescriptive answers to the real-world difficulties of managing diversity in the workplace.

“We were increasingly frustrated by the fact that we know a lot about what kinds of disparities there are in organizations, and what kind of disadvantages women and minorities faced, but we know almost nothing about how to how to reduce them,” says Alexandra Kalev, a sociologist at the University of Arizona.

The researchers found that while diversity training was by far the most popular approach, it was also the least effective at getting companies to hire and promote women and minorities. Some training programs were more effective than others: Voluntary programs were better than mandatory ones, and those that focused on the threat of bias and harassment lawsuits were worse than those that did not. But even the better programs led only to marginal changes. And those that were mandatory or discussed lawsuits – the vast majority of the programs the researchers examined – slightly reduced the number of women and minorities in management. Required training and legalistic training both make people resentful, the authors suggest, and likely to rebel against what they’ve heard.

What worked much better than even the best training, the researchers found, were more structural measures: minority mentoring programs, or designating an executive or a task force with specific responsibility to change promotion practices.

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