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Do Diversity and Inclusion Trainings Work?

My junior year of college I worked as a Resident Advisor. Part of our orientation involved a mandatory, day-long training on intercultural competency. It was interesting to observe that the other Resident Advisors in the training were either disengaged or unhappy about being part of a day-long mandatory training on diversity. This personal example points to how ineffective cultural competency training can be and what’s more, such training might have unintended consequences of increasing bias rather than reducing it. Given that a lot of companies invest a ton of money in diversity training, these experiences and corroborating research findings can be disheartening.

Photo Credit: Musa al-Gharbi

As HR professionals, what do we do with this information and our own observations about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of such efforts? If we genuinely care about fostering inclusive workplaces for all our employees, the first thing to do is to rethink traditional diversity training. Let’s take a quick look at why diversity training fails and when they can help. 

One of the main reasons these programs fail is that they are usually mandatory, and people do not respond well to being told that they must do something. Interestingly, mandatory anti-bias training has been shown to activate implicit bias in some cases. On the other hand, voluntary training has shown to have better outcomes. When participants feel like they chose to attend the training out of their own freewill, they are more likely to respond positively to the information being shared. Another reason diversity training is ineffective is that these initiatives can create a false impression that the bias has been eradicated.

In research conducted by William Cox on how to break bias habits, he highlights that bias is a very natural part of how human beings are socialized. Thus, because of how ingrained stereotypes and biases are in our society, a simple diversity training at work is not enough. This, however, does not necessarily mean that diversity and anti-bias training cannot work. They can be effective when properly crafted and executed. In Cox’s research, he mentions 7 tools that can be incorporated in the training that have better results in reducing bias. These tools are evidence-based ways that individuals can use to prevent biased thinking.

Photo Credit: UX Planet

The first three tools educate people on how to pinpoint biased thoughts, where they are coming from, and how to eventually renounce them. The fourth tool is about how engaging and interacting with people who are different from you is an effective way to reduce your bias. Tools five and six are actionable ways that help prevent bias, such as paying attention to what makes individuals unique, appreciating differences, and thinking ahead about how to deal with certain biases. The last tool is about being an ally and speaking up when insistences of bias occur. If modern day diversity training included evidence-based practices that help reduce bias instead of relying on outdated assumptions that knowing about biases eliminates them, there would be a higher chance of the training being effective.

Training should be voluntary, and they should equip individuals with the skills needed to identify their own bias, to prevent the bias, and to effectively work with people from diverse backgrounds. Lastly, organizations should start incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion in every aspect of their organizational culture. Diversity training can be effective, but they are not enough if the culture of an organization does not reflect the goals of creating inclusive work environments. Additionally, organizations should be able to answer the question of why they need diversity training and whether the answer fits within their business strategy. Overall, when organizations get serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion, they will look at it as a long-term goal and meeting that goal may involve training as well as culture change.

Check out more of William Cox’s research on bias-training here.


Katia Umutoni Rubanzana is a Graduate Assistant and current student in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about her here and connect with her on LinkedIn!

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