Why Your Diversity Training Is Backfiring

Written by Jessica Stillman | Mar 16, 2012 1:00:05 PM

Studies show that diverse teams are more creative teams. But the research is just as clear that having folks with very different backgrounds working together is also a source of conflict, and that teams need solid communication skills to reap the benefits of that diversity.

All of which you as a trainer might read and say "No problem! A little bit of diversity training is all it takes to sort that out." (Your lawsuit-averse friends in HR are probably nodding vigorously behind you.)

But not so fast, warns a recent article by author and consultant Peter Bregman on the Harvard Business Review blog. Your organization's diversity training, despite all the good intentions in the world, may ultimately backfire, causing more damage than it solves.

Standard-Issue Diversity 101

In Bregman's account of a disastrous diversity training program at a friend's company, the program had been comprised of two sensible-sounding parts. First, organizers outlined what employees could and simply couldn't say. Then team members were brought into a room and asked to separate "into categories." Some categories were pretty self-evident — things like gender, age, and ethnicity. Others were based on people's experiences, likes and dislikes, and beliefs. Each group shared a little bit about how they viewed themselves, as an attempt to educate the others about their worldview. And what was the result? Bregman reports:

"But after speaking with a number of people in the organization, it confirmed a feeling that had been pestering me for years: Diversity training doesn't extinguish prejudice. It promotes it.

"At first glance, the first training — the one that outlined what people could and couldn't say — didn't seem to hurt. But on further inspection, it turns out it did. The scenarios quickly became the butt of participant jokes. And, while the information was sound, it gave people a false sense of confidence since it couldn't possibly cover every single situation.

"The second training — the one that categorized people — was worse. Just like the first training, it was ridiculed, ironically in ways that clearly violated the recommendations from the first training. And rather than changing attitudes of prejudice and bias, it solidified them."

Bregman's piece concludes that at best, diversity training has simply been a waste. A study of 829 companies over 31 years, published in the journal Contexts in November 2007, showed that diversity training had "no positive effects in the average workplace."

And at it's worst, Bregman says, diversity training can actually hurt organizations. "In firms where training is mandatory or emphasizes the threat of lawsuits, training actually has negative effects on management diversity," he reports, quoting from the same study.

Just Don't Call It Diversity Training

So what's the solution? Should you simply leave your less-sensitive and open-minded team members to annoy their colleagues and open up your organization to lawsuits? In a word, no. Consider Bregman's alternative:

"Instead of seeing people as categories, we need to see people as people. Stop training people to be more accepting of diversity. It's too conceptual, and it doesn't work. Instead, train them to do their work with a diverse set of individuals. Not categories of people. People.

"Teach them how to have difficult conversations with a range of individuals. Teach them how to manage the variety of employees who report to them. Teach them how to develop the skills of their various employees. And, while teaching them that, help them resist the urge to think about someone as a gay person, a white man, a black woman, or an Indian."

While Bregman's critique of diversity training seems sensible, his idea about how to repair it suggests an obvious question of semantics — isn't training your team on how to communicate with those of different backgrounds and resist the urge to apply prejudicial labels, just another, better, form of diversity training?

Could it be that what Bregman is really saying isn't stop diversity training entirely, but stop poorly thought-out, knee-jerk diversity training? If you're going to make the effort, he's saying, do it right. We can agree with that.

Image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user Sanj@y.

London-based Jessica Stillman blogs about generational issues and trends in the workforce for Inc.com, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist.