Is that money actually creating meaningful change? In recent years, some social scientists have argued that it isn’t. And studies show little conclusive evidence that diversity trainings shift attitudes and behaviors in a lasting way.
But in a new paper, Ivuoma Onyeador, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, argues that we shouldn’t give up so quickly. She and her coauthors—Evelyn R. Carter of Paradigm Strategy Inc. and Neil A. Lewis Jr. of Cornell University—reviewed the existing research on diversity trainings and used that data to make evidence-based recommendations on how to improve them.
“Diversity trainings aren’t going anywhere. I think that they will continue to be part of the toolkit that organizations use to manage their climate,” Onyeador says. She and her coauthors “wanted to offer some guidance about how those trainings can be as effective as possible, so that people who are implementing them have a realistic sense of what they can do.”
Here, Onyeador offers five recommendations for building a better diversity training program.
Be Realistic about What Training Can Change—and What It Can’t
Too often, organizations roll out diversity training with aims like “improve our culture and our company” or “shift our culture”—aspirations so lofty they can’t possibly be addressed through training alone.
Truly changing an organization’s culture to make it more diverse and inclusive takes years, not hours, and it requires tools beyond training sessions. “There needs to be a multipronged approach to improving diversity and inclusion,” Onyeador says.
Training, she and her coauthors found, is much more likely to be successful when it’s paired with other offerings, such as systems that hold workers and leaders accountable for reducing bias, a well-functioning bias-response process, and networking opportunities for employees from underrepresented groups.
And it’s important to understand that there are worthwhile goals that trainings can’t achieve.
For example, “if the goal is to increase diversity at the managerial level, there may need to be a different intervention,” Onyeador says. She points to a 2006 study of 700 organizations that found that trainings failed to increase the ranks of Black and Latino managers—and sometimes even caused managerial diversity to decline. A combination of mentorship programs and diversity oversight structures, by contrast, increased managerial diversity by 40 percent.
Set Better Goals, and Give Employees the Tools to Reach Them
So what is a realistic goal for a diversity training program?
Onyeador, Carter, and Lewis found that most effective diversity training programs help participants identify and reduce bias. “That’s what we argue is the proper outcome of a training,” Onyeador says.
It’s important that participants walk away with not just an awareness of bias, but also with specific tools to help them behave differently in the future. “Some people do want to change their behavior, but they don’t know how,” Onyeador says. It’s best, she and her coauthors propose, for facilitators to leave participants with two to three concrete strategies.
However, even the relatively modest aim of helping employees acknowledge and reduce bias may require larger investments of time and effort than many organizations are used to. Unlearning patterns learned over the course of a lifetime is a gradual process. For that reason, Onyeador suggests a series of workshops instead of a one-off training session.
Looking back on her own experiences as an undergraduate, “there was some diversity content at the beginning of the year, and then we never addressed any of it again,” Onyeador recalls. “A different approach might have been to have a series of all-campus conversations throughout the year. Obviously, it’s hard to coordinate, but it sends a signal that this is really important.”
Follow-up and reinforcement is essential. One study the authors reviewed found that accountability structures, such as affirmative-action plans, diversity taskforces, and departments devoted to diversity, produced significantly better outcomes than trainings alone. Another study suggested that, without reinforcement, bias can return to its pre-training levels in just 24 hours.
Get Comfortable with Discomfort
Often, companies are wary of diversity trainings because they’re afraid of making employees uncomfortable. It’s an understandable instinct: people from both racial majority and minority groups feel anxious when they talk about race and prefer to avoid the topic. Discussions of racism can also bring about defensive reactions among members of racial majority groups.
These kinds of anxieties have led many organizations to embrace trainings centered around the idea of implicit bias—the idea that unconscious attitudes and stereotypes shape our behavior. “One of the reasons people use the implicit-bias framing is that it makes participants, white participants in particular, less defensive,” Onyeador explains.
“It’s really important that the training not assume that everyone in the audience is a potential perpetrator of prejudice, but acknowledge that some people are targets.”
— Ivouma N. Onyeador
The approach has merits and downsides. “Some of my work shows that when we frame discrimination in terms of implicit bias, people are less willing to hold discriminators accountable for their behavior,” Onyeador says. “That’s an unexpected consequence and not a good one.”
Instead of trying to avoid defensiveness and frustration, it’s important for facilitators to plan for them. That means not ignoring negative reactions, but actually calling attention to them. “Facilitators can help participants investigate, in a compassionate manner, why they’re having that defensive response,” Onyeador says.
Facilitators can also face resistance from minority-group participants who may resent content geared only toward the majority group—so it’s essential to make sure the curriculum speaks to all participants. “It’s really important that the training not assume that everyone in the audience is a potential perpetrator of prejudice, but acknowledge that some people are targets,” Onyeador says.
Taking time to acknowledge what it’s like to be on the receiving end of prejudice—and calling attention to resources for reporting mistreatment—may actually benefit majority group members, she points out: hearing what it’s like to be a victim “can increase empathy, and help with perspective-taking.”