Speaking about the dismissal of Lady Susan Hussey after the now notorious conversation they had at a Buckingham Palace reception, domestic abuse charity founder Ngozi Fulani said, “It’s tragic for me that it has ended that way. I would have preferred that she had been spoken to or re-educated.” She hoped that there would be anti-racism training for people with royal duties and that the palace would not miss this teachable moment. 

This is an important cue for learning and development professionals to further the discussion of how a diversity and inclusion agenda can be properly served in the workplace. The problem is that, as a great deal of research has repeatedly shown, diversity training doesn’t work. 

Particularly compelling is Alexandra Kalev’s study from the University of Arizona on 31 years of data from 830 companies which revealed reductions in diversity after the delivery of diversity training. A 7.5% drop in women managers a 10% drop in black women managers and a 12% drop in black men in senior management positions. There were similar drops in numbers of people of Hispanic and Asian heritage.

Kalev found that, “Most employers… force their managers and workers to go through training, and this is the least effective option in terms of increasing diversity… Forcing people to go through training creates a backlash against diversity.”

Why is D&I training still popular?

Calvin Lai, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St Louis, US. suggests that diversity training continues to be popular because it’s a relatively low-cost initiative. “You kind of get what you pay for: low cost, low pay off.” 

Apart from the clear evidence it’s not worked, the main problems with diversity and inclusion training are:

  • Corporate virtue signalling can be a complicating factor
  • Asking people to challenge stereotypes can merely reinforce these mental models 
  • Young, white men may can feel that just the announcement of a diversity training programme is a threat to their careers
  • When employees feel they’re being controlled they tend to react negatively so, making diversity training mandatory makes it less effective
  • Training inspires unrealistic confidence in anti-discrimination programs, making employees complacent about their own biases.

Can diversity be increased?

Research by Dobbin and Kalev shows that training can have an effect if it is part of a wider program of change. This is in line with what studies of other forms of workplace training, such as health and safety, have proven. The complementary measures that work best engage decision makers in solving the problem themselves. This is interesting for me, because video drama fits right in here as it is only effective by virtue of stimulating people to consider a problem, not instructing them on an answer. 

Outreach, mentoring, special recruitment programmes, each aimed at changing the actual composition of the workplace are the most effective actions. Another is diversity task forces that bring together higher-ups from different departments to look at the data on hiring, retention, pay and promotion. Such initiatives help managers understand the problem, and generally turns them into champions of diversity.

What about diversity training?

Some of the most progressive people I’ve worked with don’t position diversity comms as training. Rather it becomes part of a wider discussion about the culture of the workplace. Managing difference. 

We know that the mandatory nature of diversity training is one reason it’s ineffective. And that trying to influence people by guilt-tripping backfires. But people are interested in people – so if we can exchange perspectives it does help to create a more open culture, an environment in which misunderstandings are more easily solved. Research confirms that exchanging perspectives can improve attitudes that last longer. 

I’d like to see more humour more in diversity drama. What silly assumptions am I making about you that are confusing the message I’m getting? What assumptions are you making about my motivations? It takes a light touch but bringing mistaken assumptions into the open with inner voices can be playful, humorous, and memorable. And including audience reactions in the videos can also increase engagement. 

Most important of all, the research shows that diversity isn’t an event, it’s an on-going process that needs continual attention. 

Most of this article is based on the research of Frank Dobbin, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences, Department of Sociology, Harvard University and Professor Alexandra Kalev, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tel Aviv University. And Donald Clark has written an excellent summary of the research on his blog, PlanB

#diversity #inclusion #learninganddevelopment #drama #culture