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In 2020, Quantum Research performed an online survey of over 1000 participants across the Best Places to Work network. Even within these “best” places to work, 75% of participants believed that more diversity was needed in their workplace.

This high demand leads us to consider what is covered by the term “diversity.” In reality, it has a broad application: diversity measures could aim for greater representation and respect of marginalized groups when it comes to factors such as race and ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, educational background, and more.

According to Sheryl Sandberg’s report into gender diversity, at least 85% of companies track their diversity figures in order to measure their progress. This shows that diversity is a high priority in the modern business landscape.

However, tracking figures alone is not enough to make an impact. Alongside monitoring efforts, many companies have implemented specific measures to increase diversity in their workforce. One such measure is diversity training, and it’s an incredibly popular one.

Almost all Fortune 500 companies have some form of diversity training available to their employees. However, doubt remains regarding the effectiveness of this approach. So what is diversity training, why was it introduced in the first place, and does it actually work?

What is Diversity Training?

The objective of diversity training is to raise awareness of diversity issues in the workplace.  The underpinning idea is that greater awareness will generate deeper understanding and sincere solidarity amongst individuals of different backgrounds. For this reason, it’s often considered an important element of the team-building process.

Usually, activities are designed to promote acceptance and empathy. Old school methods whereby employees are simply taught the “do’s and don’ts” of diversity have become less popular. Now, the job of a facilitator is to encourage meaningful and respectful interactions around themes such as prejudice, discrimination (both direct and indirect), unconscious bias and potential inclusion measures.

Diversity training may also seek to highlight workplace microaggressions: everyday manifestations of prejudice which can be committed without intention or awareness of the offence caused. Microaggressions demonstrate negative or ignorant attitudes toward marginalized groups, and they can contribute to the significant harm experienced by those on the receiving end of stigmatization.

Because diversity training relates to interpersonal relationships and sensitive social issues, a skilled and knowledgeable facilitator is required. It’s one way for companies to tie their corporate objectives to values like equality and social justice. Critics of diversity training have questioned its long-term effectiveness and whether it translates to concrete changes in the workplace.

Why Was Diversity Training Introduced?

Diversity training was initially introduced to the corporate world because, after racial and gender equality was affirmed in employment law, it was clear that some kind of intervention was required to promote harmony in newly-integrated workplaces.

These sessions were an attempt to mitigate a difficult reality: that mainly white and male managers were now responsible for an employee base that was more diverse than they’d ever encountered before. Many managers were ill-equipped for this change because they were unable or unwilling to understand the different perspectives of marginalized groups. As a result, workplace interactions both reflected and reinforced social inequalities.

Often, diversity training was introduced by businesses in response to controversy or financial loss; for example, after they had faced lawsuits for discriminatory practices. However, in modern times, the positive business case for diversity is more often cited as the main motivation for diversity training.

Companies are keen to recruit and sustain more diverse workplaces because there are proven benefits to diversity in the business environment. According to the World Economic Forum, diversity drives innovation and increases both problem-solving and profitability. With this in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that companies are keen to invest in interventions that claim to promote diversity. However, there remains significant debate surrounding the effectiveness of diversity training as a strategy.

Does Diversity Training Actually Work?

A recent study undertaken by Harvard Business Review reported that, while diversity training had a positive impact in terms of increased awareness of personal biases amongst participants and increased theoretical support of policies which promote diversity, it made little concrete difference to behavioral patterns when it came to employees who were male and white.

This is an important finding because these are the two groups who typically hold most power in organizations. When these groups were asked to nominate others for informal mentorship opportunities in the weeks following their diversity training course, there was no evidence that they nominated more women or people of color.

However, an interesting finding is that more women who participated sought mentorship opportunities independently after their experience of diversity training. Although it didn’t encourage their male colleagues to advocate on their behalf, it does seem to have inspired women to advocate for themselves more actively.

Other studies have suggested that diversity training can actually activate bias instead of challenging it. This occurs because some participants are liable to rebel and become more entrenched in their personal prejudices if they feel they are being coerced into adopting positive attitudes towards diversity.

Alternative Approaches to Increase Diversity

There are many alternative approaches to training for businesses that want to make their workplaces more inclusive and respectful of diversity.

Companies can practice “blind hiring” where all potentially identifiable information is removed from job applications. This prevents unconscious or conscious bias from figuring into decision-making at the start of the hiring process.

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and “Dean of Biases,” also suggests integrating a Decision Log into standard workplace procedure. This would require people of influence within an organization to justify the decisions that they make in writing. As well as being one way to hold people accountable for their choices, it’s also a useful research tool for uncovering more about the subconscious beliefs that guide our perception of events and our reactions.

Active recruitment programs designed to target minorities may be a more effective way to increase diversity in the workplace than diversity training. Formal mentoring systems that support workers from minority backgrounds once they enter the workplace can also increase retention and help more diverse candidates reach positions of influence.

Companies like Salesforce have implemented diversity task forces. These groups meet on a regular basis to discuss equality issues in the workplace, looking for ways to increase diversity and make the workplace more inclusive for people of diverse backgrounds.

From the incredibly high percentage of companies that offer diversity training, it’s clear that the promotion of diversity is a top priority for modern businesses. Whether diversity training is the best means of achieving this, however, remains debatable.

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