Why Diversity Training Fails—and What to Do About It

Written By

Pamela Hogle

August 08, 2018

Companies have sent employees and managers to diversity training for decades. Anti-bias training, harassment-prevention training, and diversity initiatives beyond training have been tried. Many fail. Dozens of research studies have examined why diversity training fails. While behavior change—and shifting corporate culture—takes time, the good news is that there are some clear lessons about what dooms anti-bias efforts and how to start fixing the problems. 

In That’s What She Said, Joanne Lipman identifies three characteristics that the vast majority of anti-bias training shares—and that almost guarantees that the training will fail:

  • The training is mandatory. When learners have opted in to training voluntarily, they are more likely to feel good about their new awareness and openness; if it’s forced, they feel criticized by the implication that they are biased and need to be corrected.
  • The training emphasizes legal definitions or corporate liability for harassing or biased behavior. Implied threats or citing rules is a poor strategy for changing behavior.
  • The only people sent to training are managers or “problem” employees or departments. When people feel singled out and criticized, they are likely to resist the message; the training could even activate or worsen their biases.

The often-compulsory harassment-prevention or anti-bias trainings tend to “favor a classic command-and-control approach to diversity” that “boils expected behaviors down to dos and don’ts that are easy to understand and defend. Yet this approach also flies in the face of nearly everything we know about how to motivate people to make changes,” Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev wrote in “Why Diversity Programs Fail.”

A broad strategy

Offering optional training to all employees is a great first step toward changing the corporate culture. Another direction to focus a lens is on existing practices. Many stories of harassing or biased behavior that emerged—across industries—during the #MeToo movement described “high performers” or celebrities who weathered multiple allegations and complaints. Some companies, such as Twenty-First Century Fox, reached multi-million-dollar settlements with multiple alleged victims, over long periods of time. Yet the alleged harassers remained on the payroll. When employees see that complaints are ignored, egregious behavior is tolerated, or that some employees or managers get a free pass, they’re unlikely to take training messages to heart.

A clear, unambiguous message from the top levels of a company and a broad, strategic approach to reinforce anti-bias training are needed. Training is more likely to succeed as part of an initiative that includes long-term behavior-change interventions, clear targets and goals, and accountability among managers and employees alike. Clear corporate policies regarding behavior should be explained to all employees. And decisions on hiring and promotions, rather than subject to the whims (and biases) of an individual should be based on objective criteria that are applied uniformly to all candidates. 

More strategies, more tips

The eLearning Guild’s free white paper Training for Diversity examines anti-bias training more deeply and offers additional advice for improving it, as well as tips for developing a multifaceted anti-bias strategy. Download the paper today to learn more about why diversity training fails—and how to create better harassment-prevention training.

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