‘A lot of lip service’: Does mandatory diversity training actually work?

More and more workplaces are instituting training to boost diversity and inclusion. Some experts say that, while the goal is worthy, the approach fall short
By Ashley Okwuosa - Published on Nov 19, 2021
Research suggests that 92 per cent of employees expect their CEO to speak out on diversity and inclusion. (Moyo Studio/iStock)

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Over the past year, many employers have publicly vowed to boost diversity and inclusion in the workplace — responding, in part, to growing public consciousness of institutional racism. According to a December 2021 report from the Human Resources Professionals Association, diversity and inclusion work is now a “must do” for companies: it found that 73 per cent of consumers will stop purchasing from brands that do not support social justice, nine in 10 consumers want brands to take a stand on equality, and 92 per cent of employees expect their CEO to speak out on diversity and inclusion. 

So it’s no surprise that companies are increasingly implementing diversity programs — often in the form of mandatory training. A survey of more than 300 executives released this May by OneStream Software indicated that 86 per cent of financial executives at companies in North America are expanding their budgets for training in diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

But is mandatory training the best way to foster diversity and inclusion? TVO.org asked experts to weigh in. 

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What is diversity and inclusion training?

2012 article in the Academy of Management Learning & Education calls diversity training “a distinct set of programs aimed at facilitating positive intergroup interactions, reducing prejudice and discrimination, and enhancing the skills, knowledge, and motivation of people to interact with diverse others.” 

According to Wendy Cukier, founder of Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute, training approaches can vary considerably and may include anti-discrimination and unconscious-bias training or cultural-awareness education. “I've seen huge variation in the quality and impact,” says Cukier. “You can have a training program that is just talking heads, you can have training programs that are more interactive, [and] you can have training programs that are more tied to competencies and require people to actually demonstrate that they have more knowledge and understanding.” 

Does diversity and inclusion training work?

Though such training is becoming more prevalent, experts are not sold on its efficacy. “I would say training is the least effective way of driving change,” says Cukier. “It's important as part of an overall strategy, but there's lots of research that suggests that training can actually make things worse if it's not embedded in a more coherent and systematic, strategic framework.” 

For example, employees may receive training on anti-Black racism or microaggressions in the workplace. But, Cukier says, “what are the mechanisms and processes that are in place [after] to allow people become more aware of these things [and] to take action?” 

Research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2016 showed that, five years after having instituted required diversity training for managers, companies saw no change in the proportion of white women, Black men, and Hispanics people in management — and the average share of Black women decreased by 9 per cent. The proportion of managers who identified as Asian American shrank by 4 per cent. 

The research also found that people often respond to compulsory diversity-training courses with anger and resistance — and many participants actually report feeling more animosity toward other groups afterward.  “As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy,” authors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev write. “Try to coerce me to do X, Y, or Z, and I’ll do the opposite just to prove that I’m my own person.” 

Leeno Karumanchery, head of behavioural sciences at MESH/diversity, a software company that provides diversity, equity, and inclusion training, says that programs can be isolating for participants and are often instituted without a proper plan to measure success. “[Diversity and inclusion] work is usually done with a sledgehammer to kind of show you what's wrong and why you're a part of it,” says Karumanchery, a sociologist. “It generally beats down allies really well. So when you bring that stuff into organizational life, not surprisingly, it doesn't really go very far. You get a lot of lip service and not much else.”

Experts note that some companies may approach the issue half-heartedly, seemingly trying to satisfy an obligation rather than working to solve a problem. “You know that you're going down the right road when it's no longer, ‘Have we met our requirements?’” says Jeannette Campbell, CEO of Ontario’s Disability Employment Network, adding that what organizations should be asking is: “Are we are we making sure that our workplace is a safe place and it's inclusive?”

And even though spending on diversity and inclusion initiatives is going up, some groups are getting left behind, Campbell says: “Diversity and inclusion are not one word. So you can be a very diverse company, but you might not be inclusive. And you can be a very diverse and inclusive company, but you still might not have anybody working for you who has a disability.” 

According to Campbell, while George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police in May 2020 led to a focus on initiatives around anti-Black racism in the workplace, increased discussions around diversity and inclusion often fail to include disability. “It seems like there is often only room for one movement at a time,” she says. “And when something happens in our society, in a local community, on a national stage, and a global stage, it will push all the other areas aside.”  

What can organizations do to support diversity and inclusion? 

For diversity training to work, Cukier says, it must be targeted. “Something that might be appropriate for an organization that is based in downtown Toronto is not likely to resonate in St. John's.” 

And supportive policies are critical, she adds, because employees from minority groups should feel safe speaking out about their experiences in the workplace: “You have to be sure that if you're encouraging people to stand up, there's going to be someone there to back them.” HR should take steps that promote an inclusive corporate culture for all employees. “If you have an annual golf tournament,” Cukier says, “is that going to include some people and exclude others?”  

Ivan Joseph, vice-president of student affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University, says that, instead of mandatory diversity training, organizations should consider offering “a wide depth and breadth of diversity trainings” that involve a variety of approaches. “Allow people to come where they are,” he says. “If you make diversity trainings optional, what we have found is you create champions of diversity and increase the acceptance and willingness to promote inclusion across your organization.”  

Agenda video, February 9, 2021: Building an inclusive construction industry

According to Dobin and Kalev, “companies get better results when they ease up on the control tactics.”  Their research suggests that “it’s more effective to engage managers in solving the problem, increase their on-the-job contact with female and minority workers, and promote social accountability — the desire to look fair-minded.” They identify college-recruitment initiatives, mentoring programs, self-managed teams, and task forces as more effective ways to increase and support a diverse workplace. 

Cukier says that companies should be tracking and encouraging diversity at every stage — from applicants to leaders. If companies are looking for honest feedback on what’s working and what isn’t, she suggests that employee-engagement surveys are a good way to go. The key, though, is asking the right questions. “Do you feel you have opportunities for promotion? Do you trust your colleagues? Do you feel you're respected?”

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