Most serious organisations spend a lot of time and money on diversity training, hoping that this will create a more inclusive and tolerant workforce – but do they do any checking to see if it actually has the desired outcome? Does diversity training actually work?
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Harvard Business Review
Virtually all Fortune 500 companies in the USA offer diversity training to their employees. Yet surprisingly few of them have measured its impact. That’s unfortunate, considering evidence has shown that diversity training can backfire, eliciting defensiveness from the very people who might benefit most – and, even when the training is beneficial, the effects may not last after the programme ends.
This made a group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania challenge themselves: what would happen if we created a training programme and rigorously tested its effects? If we used the most relevant scientific findings on behaviour change to design an intervention for increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace, could we change employee attitudes? Could we prompt more inclusive behaviour? If so, would those changes stick?
We designed an experiment to measure the impact of diversity training and the results, which we recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, surprised us.
The research model
First, we created three versions of a one-hour online training course: one focused on addressing gender bias, one on addressing biases of all sorts (e.g., gender, age, race, and sexual orientation) and a third, which served as a control, that did not mention bias but, instead, focused on the importance of cultivating psychological safety in teams. The control allowed us to evaluate the specific effects of diversity training (as opposed to training in general), and the two bias versions allowed us to test which approach would have a bigger impact.
We then invited over 10,000 employees from a large global organisation to participate and randomly assigned the more than 3,000 who signed up into one of the three versions of the training. The final sample was 61.5% male, 38.5% female, included employees located in 63 different countries, and was composed of roughly 25% managers.
The course material was based on research on attitude and behaviour change, with a particular focus on preventing defensiveness. The two bias-focused trainings opened with noted experts explaining the psychological processes that underlie stereotyping and how they can lead to inequity in the workplace.
An Implicit Association Test was next; participants reflected on their existing unconscious biases. They then learned strategies to overcome bias and stereotyping in common workplace practices (e.g., reviewing resumes, conducting performance evaluations and connecting with colleagues) – and had the chance to practice using them. The training in the control version had the same length, format, and opportunities to receive feedback and practice strategies, but it was devoid of any of the instructional content related to bias.
Effects and findings
To examine the effects of the training, we measured employees’ attitudes toward women and racial minorities immediately after they completed the training; they also measured their behaviour over the next 20 weeks by observing whom they chose to informally mentor, whom they recognised for excellence and whom they volunteered time to help.
What did we find? Let’s start with the good news. The bias-focused trainings had a positive effect on the attitudes of one important group: employees who researchers believe were the least supportive of women prior to training. They found that, after completing training, these employees were more likely to acknowledge discrimination against women, express support for policies designed to help women, and acknowledge their own racial and gender biases, compared to similar employees in the control group. For employees who were already supportive of women, we found no evidence that the training produced a backlash.
But did the training change behaviour?
Not quite. Researchers found very little evidence that diversity training affected the behaviour of men or white employees overall—the two groups which, typically, hold the most power in organisations and are often the primary targets of these interventions.
The data produced contained two interesting surprises, however. The first was that the single largest behavioural effect generated by the training was on the behaviour of women in the company’s U.S. offices.
Three weeks after the training was complete, the organisations were asked to email employees about a new initiative. The email asked employees to nominate up to five co-workers they would like to meet for a casual coffee chat to help create a more inclusive culture. Our goal was to measure whether employees would be more willing to provide informal mentorship to women and people of colour after undergoing the diversity training.
Contrary to researcher’s expectations, the training didn’t prompt men to nominate more women, nor did it lead senior women to nominate more junior women. However, we saw that, among junior women in the U.S., those who took the bias training (as compared to those who did not) used this initiative to seek out mentorship from more senior colleagues at the company, regardless of gender. Apparently, the training prompted these women to be more proactive about their own advancement. While we need further research to understand why, it may be that the training made women more acutely aware of the bias-driven barriers in the workplace, motivating them to take action. It’s also possible that the institutional effort to promote inclusivity led these women to trust that it was safe to advocate for themselves.
The second surprise emerged from the version of our training that focused entirely on gender bias and gender stereotyping. Despite its clear focus on gender, it also had positive effects on U.S. employees’ attitudes and behaviours toward racial minorities. Even though there was no mention of race or racial bias in this training, U.S. employees who took it were more willing than their counterparts in the control group to acknowledge their own racial biases, provide informal mentorship to racial minorities, and recognise the excellent work of their peers who were racial minorities. It appears that helping people recognise biases towards one marginalised group of people can have positive spill-over effects on their attitudes and behaviours towards other marginalized groups.
Getting the most from your diversity training
Based on these results, researchers have a few suggestions for how organisations can better leverage the effort they put into diversity training.
Diversify your training approach. The absence of any observable change in the behaviour of male or white employees overall suggests that we need to stop treating diversity training as a silver bullet. Instead, we recommend investing in a multipronged diversity and inclusion programme that encourages under-represented talent to join, stay, succeed and lead within your organisation. This includes a broad range of approaches, from targeting training to different audiences, to re-engineering hiring practices, to normalising flex time, to using technology and behavioural science to reduce bias in performance evaluations.
Get data. Regularly collecting and reviewing data will let you know how your programmes and policies are performing, so you can make adjustments. While many organisations track diversity metrics around recruitment, selection and retention, considerably fewer regularly collect data on the attitudes and behaviours of current employees who are the target of most diversity training. Doing so will yield insights into the impact of any particular interventions (for example, seeing improvement among those whose attitudes were least inclusive to start).
Experiment. Treating diversity training as an experiment (where you test treatments against a control) can help organisations gain insight into what’s effective and what’s not – without reducing the benefits from the training programmes themselves. This approach is what enabled us to see the spill-over effects of the gender-focused training on attitudes and behaviours toward racial minorities. The incremental costs of creating subtly, but potentially meaningfully, different versions of the same training are relatively small, whereas the benefits could be considerable.
Researchers hope that organisations will bring their own curiosity and creativity to bear on the new questions that emerged from our study. There’s plenty left to learn about how to create a diverse and inclusive workplace.