The Trouble with Diversity Training

New research finds mandatory diversity training sends the wrong message to employees. Instead, experts urge HR leaders to make such training voluntary, and to take different approaches such as integrating diversity-related content into existing programs.

Monday, August 8, 2016
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Diversity training: worthwhile endeavor or waste of energy?  

Researchers Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev pondered that question when they recently examined three decades’ worth of data on diversity training, culled from more than 820 United States-based businesses as well as interviews with hundreds of line managers and executives.

Dobbin and Kalev summarized their findings in the July/August 2016 edition of Harvard Business Review, where they pointed to volumes of past research that they say reinforce their overarching conclusion -- mandatory diversity training, however well-intentioned it may be, often misses the mark.

In fact, making employees attend diversity training likely does more to create resistance and animosity than to foster an environment of inclusion and acceptance, says Dobbin, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, noting that diversity training was compulsory at roughly 75 percent of the organizations that he and Kalev studied.

"We know from decades of workplace research by sociologists, and laboratory research by psychologists, that people don’t respond well to having their arms twisted," says Dobbin. "Coercion tends to backfire."

Generally speaking, the approach to diversity training "is that you have to require it, or the people who most need to learn the lessons of training won’t go," he says. "But our quantitative research shows that companies that make training mandatory actually see negative effects."

More specifically, Dobbin and Kalev found that companies actually saw representation of some demographic groups drop in the five years after they made diversity training programs obligatory managers.

For example, the share of black women in management roles within these organizations decreased by 9 percent on average in that time, while the ranks of Asian-American men and women declined by 4 percent to 5 percent.

Ominous undertones within the training may also help to undermine the messaging in many diversity training programs, says Dobbin, adding that three-quarters of the firms that he and Kalev analyzed discussed legal requirements or lawsuits as part of their diversity training.

Laying out the legal case for diversity and sharing details of large financial settlements from discrimination cases "feels like arm-twisting," he says, "and also elicits backlash."

Paul Smithivas, a Chicago-based senior consultant at Willis Towers Watson, agrees, and urges HR leaders to "choose not to make inclusion and diversity training mandatory."

While compulsory training "sends a strong message of importance, it also connotes compliance," says Smithivas, "and has the potential to reinforce bias rather than combat it." 

Instead, HR can make training "voluntary for employees who want to self-select in," he says, noting that content touching on unconscious bias and inclusive behavior can also be woven into broader training sessions on management and leadership training.

"This approach creates demand for the training," he says, "as employees actually want to be there and realize the personal and professional benefits. This will also help engage leadership and result in a common language and way that [the] organization approaches inclusion."

Indeed, the right approach to diversity training can reap real benefits, says Sondra Thiederman, a San Diego-based workplace diversity, bias reduction and cross-cultural business expert who’s worked with organizations such as The Boeing Co., Motorola, General Motors, Xerox Corp. and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals.

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"Done correctly, and with the awareness of the specific climate of the organization, diversity training can signal real change in the climate of an organization," says Thiederman, adding that Dobbin and Kalev found companies that "eased up on the control tactics" delivered more effective diversity training.

"When the emphasis is put on contact between diverse groups, the results are better," says Thiederman.

Along with shunning "force-fed" training, "I would add that any effective diversity training needs to avoid blaming one population for the organization’s diversity challenges," she says. "Unconscious bias, for example, is present in all groups, and we all have the responsibility to work on them. If this approach is taken, there is, in my experience, very little resistance and therefore an improved climate."

While noting the positive effects of training courses that are elective, don’t mention legal repercussions and include managers as well as employees, employers may also want to consider formal mentoring systems that link junior employees with more seasoned managers from other departments, says Dobbin.

Such efforts are "more effective," as are diversity taskforces that "put managers in charge of figuring out what [diversity] challenges the employer faces, and how to address those challenges," he says.

Some organizations, for instance, may face difficulty in recruiting diverse candidates, while others have trouble retaining female employees who become mothers for the first or second time.

Special college recruitment initiatives that send managers out to find women and minorities can be beneficial as well, adds Dobbin.

"All of these programs put managers in charge of promoting diversity, and, rather than sending the message that managers are the obstacle to achieving greater diversity, [they] send the message that they are the solution to the problem."

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