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The Future of Diversity Training

Darkest before the dawn?

People are different, and when there are differences, there’s always the potential for misunderstanding, conflict or negative emotions. As humans, we have a long history of dealing with differences among us — from witch hunts to slavery, civil war to revolution. We’ve learned the hard way that some strategies are counterproductive as we strive to achieve a civil and peaceful society.

Right now, as a rational way to show us how to co-exist and prosper together, diversity training appears to be the best, and maybe the only, option we’ve got. Social psychologists have long been attracted to this topic, with decades of research showing how we identify ourselves with different groups to maintain our positive self-esteem, how we categorize people into ingroups (similar to us) and outgroups (different from us), and how we favor ingroups and dislike outgroups.

Diversity scholars put great effort into designing interventions or diversity programs to help our society manage these differences, with some variable success. Yet, the ideal of different people living and working together in harmony is very hard to reach because it’s human nature to engage in “categorization” processes (think stereotyping) when we meet people, sliding us back into prejudice and various types of dysfunction, misunderstanding and even violence.

Think about modern-day examples where groups of people didn’t get along, such as the incident in Ferguson, Missouri, and resulting civil unrest; the killings of New York police; and the massacre at the magazine offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. While different on many levels, they all share one theme: They demonstrate the implications people do not accept differences — and how, ultimately, lives are at stake.

In response to this social issue, diversity training has the potential to make a huge, positive impact because its goals are to address prejudice, stereotyping and other biases — all critical for the enhancement of human well-being and society. How to do this effectively, however, is a separate issue and what our study is about.

First, we located research reports and accounts of every diversity training program we could find. Early on, we realized the effectiveness of some training programs is open to question. As well-meaning as the goals behind some diversity training may be, at times it backfires, often by reinforcing stereotypes. After all, it’s a very value-laden and emotionally charged type of training.

We then analyzed more than 40 years of research on diversity training programs used by universities, businesses and other organizations, and examined 260 independent samples assessing the effects of diversity training on four outcomes over time and across training context, design and participant demographics. We found that, while many training programs fell short in demonstrating effectiveness on some characteristics, our analysis revealed that successful diversity training occurs. The positive effects of diversity training were greater when it was complemented by other diversity initiatives, targeted to both awareness and skills development, and conducted over a significant period of time. Essentially, effective diversity training is time-consuming, part of a larger initiative and about both acquiring skills in working with people and changing attitudes. It is not a “one shot deal.”

So, what is the future of diversity training efforts? As our research shows, leadership commitment to diversity is of critical importance. Such commitment from the top of organizations makes it easier to emphasize what we have in common rather than how we are different, a characteristic we found in the most successful diversity training programs.

These are interesting times for the future of diversity training. Beyond examples of civil unrest noted earlier, other developments — like the Brexit vote in Britain and the immigration crackdown in the United States — suggest that some societies and heads of state may embrace a “divide and conquer” strategy to governing by focusing on immigration status or other differences. In the U.S., for example, a Maryland county recently asked high school teachers to take down pro-diversity posters from classrooms because they perceived them as “anti-Trump.” Does this mean diversity training will become even more challenging since headlines seem to suggest we are going down the road to more bias, discrimination and stereotyping?

Not necessarily. Remember, our research found that many diversity training programs lack critical components to be effective. In challenging the goals of diversity training, the real effect may be to force the training industry to “ramp up its game” to continue to be relevant. In other words, the diversity training programs most likely to survive in today’s political environment are best ones — the ones with the most comprehensive, well-thought-out approach, as identified in our research.

Optimistically, the end result may be diversity training that is, as a whole, stronger and more effective. For diversity advocates, the silver lining in this stormy time is that we may end up with better diversity training programs that make a real difference in organizations’ and individuals’ lives. And that’s the real point of this type of training.

Written by

Katerina Bezrukova, associate professor of organization and human resources, University at Buffalo School of Management and

Chester Spell, professor of management, Rutgers University

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