Corporate Diversity Training Doesn't Work & Causes Conflict

Corporate Diversity Training Doesn’t Work & Causes Conflict

December 17, 2020 – Many corporations have adopted what is known as “diversity training” classes that are then made mandatory for all employees. While almost all Fortune 500 and major corporations have adopted this practice, the science behind it is practically nonexistent. In fact, several studies and recent articles looking into the effects of these classes, have discovered that often the opposite of the intended result is often achieved. Instead of making people less racist or biased, these classes often cause conflict, racism and less tolerance.

Imagine being forced by your employer to attend a class at which you will be told that you are automatically racist and privileged regardless of whether or not your personal experience fits that absurd box. Imagine being forced to take “diversity training” by your employers, and being condescendingly told you are somehow a victim and that your co-workers are racist against you because their skin is a different color. These are the absurd, infantile and counterproductive narratives that are shoved down the throats of employees during these compulsory classes.

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You can see how these classes may actually cause people to become resentful,  more racist, frustrated and less tolerant. No one likes being forced do to something against their will, and no one likes being talked down to like they are children.

According to a recent article by Real Clear Science entitled Research Shows Diversity Training is Typically Ineffective it appears people are finally catching on to this:

The limited research suggesting diversity-related training programs as efficacious was based on things like surveys before and after the training, or testing knowledge or attitudes about various groups or policies. And to be clear, the training does help people answer survey questions in the way the training said they ‘should.’ And many people who undergo the training say they enjoyed it or found it helpful in post-training questionnaires. 

However, when scientists set about to investigate whether the programs actually changed behaviors, i.e. do they reduce expressions of bias, do they reduce discrimination, do they foster greater collaboration across groups, do they help with retaining employees from historically marginalized or underrepresented groups, do they increase productivity or reduce conflicts in the workplace — for all of these behavioral metrics, the metrics that actually matter, not only is the training ineffective, it is often counterproductive.

Often, when people attempt to do fact-checks, they begin by underscoring the falsehood, and then proceed to try to debunk that falsehood. This can create what psychologists call an ‘illusory truth effect,’ where people end up remembering the falsehood, forgetting the correction – and then attributing their misinformation to the very source that had tried to correct it! A similar effect seems to hold with antibias training. By articulating various stereotypes associated with particular groups, emphasizing the salience of those stereotypes, and then calling for their suppression, they often end up reinforcing them in participants’ minds. Sometimes they even implant new stereotypes (for instance, if participants didn’t previously have particular stereotypes for Vietnamese people, or much knowledge about them overall, but were introduced to common stereotypes about this group through training intended to dispel said stereotypes).

Other times, they can fail to improve negative perceptions about the target group, yet increase negative views about others. For instance, an empirical investigation of ‘white privilege’ training found that it did nothing to make participants more sympathetic to minorities – it just increased resentment towards lower-income whites.

Encouraging people to ignore racial and cultural differences often results in diminished cooperation across racial lines. Meanwhile, multicultural training — emphasizing those differences — often ends up reinforcing race essentialism among participants. It is not clear what the best position between these poles is (such that these negative side effects can be avoided), let alone how to consistently strike that balance in training.

Many diversity-related training programs describe bias and discrimination as rampant. One unfortunate consequence of depicting these attitudes and behaviors as common is that it makes many feel more comfortable expressing biased attitudes or behaving in discriminatory ways. Insofar as it is depicted as ubiquitous, diversity-related training can actually normalize bias.

For others, the very fact that the company has diversity-related training is proof that it is a non-biased institution. This perception often reduces concerns about bias and discrimination – by oneself or others. As a consequence, people not only become more likely to act in more biased ways, but they also react with increased skepticism and hostility when colleagues claim to have been discriminated against. – Real Clear Science

Sadly, too few corporations seem to understand this. The media does not highlight the many issues that are inherent in corporate diversity training and because of this, these programs continue to persist to the detriment of employees and society at large. Rather than bringing people together so that they may work better, these training classes often alienate people and cause employees to resent and become suspicious of one another.

Nick Gillespie of Reason wrote a piece on this called Diversity Training Isn’t Just Expensive, It’s Counterproductive wherein he argues that the training simply reinforces stereotypes and causes frustration:

‘In response to the killing of George Floyd, the massive Black Lives Matter protests and pressure from students,’ write Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, ‘dozens of colleges and universities have made public commitments to new anti-racism initiatives.’ Unfortunately, the Carleton College faculty members say such efforts are not only expensive but often counterproductive, actually stoking the very divisions they are supposed to heal.

Historians Khalid and Snyder cast a gimlet eye on forcing students to engage in activities such as ‘privilege walks’ (in which participants are moved ahead in line based on parental income or educational attainment) and ‘culture bingo’ (which asks students whether they can define melanin or if they know Chinese birth signs). Summarizing research of similar corporate programs, they note ‘the impact of diversity training at more than 800 companies over three decades…[was] that the positive effects are short-lived and that compulsory training generates resistance and resentment.’ 

Citing costs of between $2,000 and $6,000 for one-day training sessions of 50 people, Khalid and Snyder instead counsel budget-conscious schools to use funds to increase the number of people from historically under-represented populations (including class along with race, gender, and sexual orientation). They argue that teaching primary texts in classroom settings will do more to spur discussion and common understanding than exercises typically run by administrators or outside consultants. – Reason

Perhaps corporations and universities do not understand that they are creating more racism and bias, and less tolerance and acceptance of others. The participants are forced to engage in scripted conversations that are often insulting and unrelatable, thus rendering the programs useless and frankly, a waste of time.

A 2017 article by David Rock for Psychology Today asks the question, Is your Companies Diversity Training Making you more Biased? where he argues that these classes often trigger and “us vs them” response in attendees:

Although diversity and inclusion training is prevalent in corporate America, its impact is inconsistent. According to the evidence, sometimes the programs even have the opposite effect of what they intend. 

One 2016 study of 830 mandatory diversity training programs found that they often triggered a strong backlash against the ideas they promoted. ‘Trainers tell us that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance,’ wrote sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev in the Harvard Business Review, ‘and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward.’

The problem is not with the programs themselves. They make a strong case for valuing differences—not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it leads to much higher levels of performance. Inclusive companies have a demonstrated advantage, both in financial performance and in general levels of innovation, and being around others from different backgrounds has been shown to make people more creative and hardworking. Drawing on multiple perspectives leads teams to see a greater number of solutions to problems. The training itself is increasingly well-designed, sound in its messages, and convincing in its delivery.

Why, then, does it spark a backlash? The answer has to do with biases deeply entrenched in most people’s patterns of thinking—attitudes not about race or gender per se, but about the nature of autonomy and choice, and about group membership. The political conflicts around ‘political correctness’ and inclusiveness stem from the same cognitive issues. That in itself makes the negative reaction to inclusion training a worthy subject of study. If businesses can’t create an environment where their employees from diverse backgrounds feel like they are treated equitably, how can we expect society at large to do it?

Diversity and inclusion training came to corporations in the 1970s and 1980s when it became clear that a biased environment—one in which people felt unwelcome because of differences in ethnicity, gender, age, national origin, disability, sexual orientationeducation, or religion—affected performance and held entire companies back from achieving their potential. Diversity training involves hiring practices and helps ensure legal compliance. Inclusion training focuses on creating the kind of unbiased atmosphere and broad leadership opportunities that will attract diverse employees to stay.

All of these programs directly address the problem of bias. But the unfortunate truth is that you can’t eliminate bias simply by outlawing it. Most people don’t like being told what to believe, and anything that feels like pressure to think a certain way makes people want to do the opposite.

In a study published in 2011, ‘Ironic Effects of Antiprejudice Messages,’ participants were divided into two groups—an autonomy group and a control group—and asked to read a brief anti-prejudice essay. The autonomy group read an essay that emphasized individual choice, explaining why open-mindedness is a more joyful way to live. That essay contained statements such as ‘When we let go of prejudice, the rich diversity of society is ours to enjoy’; ‘You are free to choose to value non-prejudice’; ‘Only you can decide to be an egalitarian person’; and ‘Such a personal choice is likely to help you feel connected to yourself and your social world.’

Backlash is also triggered by the message that differences among people are valuable. There is a deeply tribal aspect of human nature that reacts negatively to this message. People naturally divide the world into ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ and when you meet someone new, your brain instantly categorizes them either as an outsider or as one of your own. That tendency is so ingrained that dividing people into groups leads individuals to discriminate against out-group members even when the division is based on something as arbitrary as a coin toss. – Psychology Today

David Rock makes many important observations in this piece. No one to be told what to do and how to feel, and when a corporation does it in a condescending way it creates a sort of backlash from some participants. In some cases, it also creates  a herd mentality along racial lines, and the extremely negative mindset of “us vs them” that can easily corrupt cohesion in the workplace or classroom. He notes that the program classifies people into groups often along racial lines and in ways that participants never consider until they take the class. In effect, he argues, you are actually training people to be racist, or to think along racial lines.

While diversity classes purport to help people and to increase tolerance, they are designed in a way that does the exact opposite. Rather than increasing tolerance and acceptance, the classes amplify tribal tendencies and resentment. With the focus on differences and race, the effect is that differences and racial ways of thinking will be adopted by attendees. Unlike the corporate diversity training classes, working on unity and teamwork as part of the in-group, actually creates more tolerance and better cohesion.  Should it exist in workplaces or on college campuses, the best way to lessen racism is not to focus on race or to emphasize it. Disregard it as irrelevant. The way to encourage tolerance is to focus on what unites people, regardless of any differences they cannot control, like the color of one’s skin. When the focus is on shared values and common goals, it brings people together. Emphasis on external differences creates confusion, anger and resentment. Actually the solution is very simple. Do not pay for and/or mandate these classes. Develop team building exercises instead. Follow the example of the U.S. Military, one of the most diverse and effective organizations on the planet.

Additional Reading

If you would like to learn more about this, and why this is especially important for corporations to understand in today’s increasingly polarized and divided nation, see the following articles, in addition to the ones cited above:

  1. Diversity Training Doesn’t Work” by Peter Bregman, Harvard Business Review 2012.
  2. To improve diversity, don’t make people go to diversity training. Really.” by Jena McGregor, Washington Post 2016.
  3. Why You Should Stop Attending Diversity Training” by Suzanne Lucas, CBS News 2012.

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W. Rogers
W. Rogers
1 month ago

Yes . You can’t solve a problem with the same mind-set that created the problem . Some of the true lessons of MLK have been erased and edited . I was there . His great Dream is being stabbed to death .