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Why Your Diversity Training May Be Holding You Back

Virtually all top companies today offer diversity training. Yet many DEI leaders can't definitively say these programs are working.

According to research from Harvard Business Review, very little evidence suggests that the average diversity training affects the behavior of men or white employees. Why? Most training is ad hoc and reactive, so learnings don't last.

In order for diversity training to be effective in any workplace, it must exist as one part of a larger whole. Meaning, there must be a greater, multi-pronged organizational focus on driving diversity outcomes across disciplines, functions, teams, and people.

Leading companies know that diversity is not an a la carte affair. And that includes training. Below, we've outlined some methods to better execute your diversity training efforts.


  1. The Challenge: Organizations are consistently in 'react' mode.

Sometimes, diversity training happens in response to an incident of bias between employees. In this scenario, an HR person may hold a diversity class for all employees. Leaders may point to this training to show employees—and the public, if the incident reached external audiences—that the company cares about its minority groups and plans to do better.

However, these efforts may backfire if the company has never made tangible progress in improving the everyday experiences of minority employees. When diversity trainings are consistently held in response to poor behavior, minority and majority groups alike are left to feel that diversity isn't a company priority.


The Alternative: Creating a solid diversity and inclusion plan.

Instead of waiting for controversy to strike, leaders should approach diversity more proactively. Start by understanding what's working and what's not via feedback loops and data-driven research. Then, build a plan that includes specific problems you want to address, as well as measurable goals and accountability systems across the org. If possible, share this plan with all employees. This way, all team members understand expectations. Over time, collect evidence that goals are being met. You can then optimize policies and procedures as needed if they fall short on those goals. 

For example, say an organization wants to fix any pay inequities that may exist. They perform an audit of the compensation packages that minority employees have received over several years, compared to their non-minority peers. With data on hand, the company can then create a plan to address any pay gaps. This may include new equitable pay policies, fair treatment training with hiring managers, or negotiation training with underrepresented groups.  Finally, the company can regularly track the data to ensure goals are being met.


  1. The Challenge: You can't determine if a class has actually changed views or behavior. Worse, it may actually reinforce stereotypical beliefs. 

Employees often fill out a survey after attending diversity training. In it, the survey typically asks for their views on the content  presented, as well as their beliefs about members of different groups. Herein lies the problem with measuring success: The results are self-reported. Leaders can't truly know what the employee thinks about these topics, given the nature of these surveys may allow employees to anticipate desired answers. Essentially, they may tell their employers what they want to hear.

On the other end of the spectrum, employees who are forced to participate in diversity training may actually experience adverse effects. Some people may see diversity training as a punitive intervention. Such perspectives can cause resentment toward the very groups that diversity programs aim to protect.


The Alternative: Create activities that build community and celebrate differences.

Oftentimes, biases happen when people lack exposure to different groups. To foster a more inclusive culture, create community-building opportunities. Employees from different backgrounds should be able to easily interact with each other. These meaningful interactions can create a point of reference that counters stereotypes.

For example, activities like potluck lunches (where people share the food and stories of their culture) increase cultural education among employees. So too do holidays that honor the histories of underrepresented groups. These activities offer employees the space to celebrate differences, rather than be separated by them.


  1. The Challenge: Diversity training may not lead to a more diverse workforce.

Diversity training does not always directly impact hiring outcomes. According to research in the American Sociological Review, organizations that require employees to take diversity classes have 6% fewer Black women in managerial positions than those that do not. Similar dismal research can be found in Harvard Business Review. Their studies report that, despite the large number of commercial banks requiring managers to take diversity training, representation of minority groups in those companies has decreased year over year.


The Alternative: Adopting hiring practices that encourage diversity.

Most people have the best intentions in the hiring process. But biases creep in—even when we aren’t consciously aware of them. Without recruiters knowing it, prejudices such as pedigree bias (the preference to hire those who have “elite” qualifications or connections), confirmation bias (the tendency to seek out information about a candidate that reinforces preconceived notions about a group they are a member of), and the horn effect (the inclination to use a perceived negative trait about a person to make assumptions and assign them other unfavorable characteristics) impact the hiring process.

Recruiters and candidates alike deserve a more equitable hiring process. DEI and talent professionals should train employees on structured hiring and interview processes. Research shows that unstructured interviews often unreliably predict job success.  Companies can also institute a "blind" interview practice, in which candidates answer initial screening questions anonymously. This can be done electronically through a recruitment platform. In fact, multiple types of technology can help recruiters and hiring managers reduce bias throughout the recruitment cycle. Programs like Textio, for instance, can detect potential bias in job descriptions and resume screenings.


Diversity and inclusion are core to all aspects of a successful business. Effective training plays an important part. However, training is no substitution for a multi-pronged diversity plan that addresses all aspects of company culture, from hiring to onboarding to retention. Good companies recognize this—and great companies rectify this.

Looking to hire the best, most diverse talent? See Canvas in action or contact our team at [email protected]

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