Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

The Value of Diversity Training

By Thomas Kochman - 03.07.2010

Drake Bennett’s article “Who’s still biased” cites researchers who, using prejudice reduction as a basis for evaluating the effectiveness of corporate diversity training, “found no empirical support for the idea that diversity training programs change attitudes or behavior.”

Another criterion researchers used was the extent to which companies have become more diverse as a result of having gone through diversity training.

As Bennett notes, “Research by a team of sociologists on more than 800 companies over three decades has found that the best diversity training programs make little difference in who gets hired and promoted, and many programs actually decrease the number of women and minorities in management.”

Both statements raise more questions about the research than they do about the effectiveness of diversity training.

For example, the first research criterion presumes both a link between prejudice reduction and behavioral change –doesn’t this itself have to be proven– and that prejudice reduction is the best criterion for judging whether diversity training “works.”

The second criterion reduces diversity training to a numbers game: how many diverse people are in management or get hired or promoted, as if other factors aren’t more critical or telling.

My view is that too much reliance is placed on diversity training as the instrument of organizational change.

Apart from making diversity training an easy scapegoat when change doesn’t happen quickly or soon enough, the reliance is misplaced because it underestimates people\’s levels of resistance to change: what\’s behind that and what it would really take to correct a social problem.

Look at the difficulty the federal government is having trying to curb the risky behavior of Wall Street bankers over credit swaps. If government laws can\’t create behavior change how can a diversity training course which relies on persuasion rather than coercion –in short, which has no real authority behind it — and which allows people to stonewall indefinitely with impunity if they so choose.

We have more realistic expectations of what we can accomplish with diversity training. Apart from promoting an understanding of social and cultural differences we aim to have different groups of people have different kinds of conversations with each other than they could have had before. Those ends, in and of themselves, are no small achievement.

How do we accomplish this? Mainly through extensive and reliable research, friendly persuasion and tapping into the wish and need of people to get things right.

This applies to everyone and maybe even especially to white men –even though they often feel they have the most to lose in the general push for greater diversity and social inclusion of white women and people of color.

Why?

I think it has to do with ego and position.

Culturally socialized to be knowers white men walk around with less egg on their face if they at least have their facts straight. This is especially important if they also hold top positions in the company.

Maybe that\’s also where our real leverage is: helping people avoid personal embarrassment and shame.

Oh! And by the way, being right rather than wrong in business, social and personal relationships–that also impacts morale and the bottom line. Not a bad return on your investment, don\’t you think?

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