‘The Strange Case of Rachel Doleza’: why diversity training does more harm than good
As a Trustee of several public bodies, I’ve been subjected to several of these sessions – here’s but one example. But let’s look at the substantive evidence.
Diversity training damned by research
Has diversity training become and end in itself rather than a means to an end? The vast amount of time and money spent on diversity training, when evaluated, is found wanting, mostly ineffective, even counter-productive. With evidence from large scale studies, from Dobbin, Kalev and Kochan, as well as many other focused pieces of research, you'd have thought that the message would have got through. The sad truth is that few on either the supply or demand side, give a damn about whether it works or not. It's become an article of faith.
Dobbins: Virtually no effect… generates a backlash
Harvard’s Frank Dobbin conducted the first major, systematic study of diversity programmes across 708 private sector companies, using employment data and surveys on employment practices. His research concluded that, “Practices that target managerial bias through…diversity training, show virtually no effect.” In fact, “Research to date suggests that… training often generates a backlash.”
Many other studies show that diversity training has activated, rather than reduced diversity (Kidder et al 2004, Rynes and Rosen 1995, Sidanias et al 2001, Naff and Kellough 2003, Benedict et al 1998, Nelson et al 1996). These are all referenced in the report. The research is a very thorough piece of work, and well worth reading, which is why it was completely ignored.
Kalev: Diversity training harmful
Most diversity training is not evaluated at all or languishes in the Level 1, lala land of ‘happy sheets’. So check out Alexandra Kalev’s study from the University of Arizona. 31 years of data from 830 companies – how’s that for a Level 4 evaluative study! Her latest study found, after the delivery of diversity training, a 7.5% DROP in women managers, 10% DROP in black women managers and a 12% DROP in black men in senior management positions. There were similar DROPS among Latinos and Asians.
The strength of this study comes from the quantity and integrity of the data. It relies on compulsory federal EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) filings on the number of women and people of colour in management, along with details of diversity training programmes.
The bottom line is that the vast majority of diversity courses are useless, especially when driven by HRs perception of avoiding prosecution. The problem centres around courses run in response to legislative and external pressures. Kalev found that , "Most employers….force their managers and workers to go through training, and this is the least effective option in terms of increasing diversity. . . . Forcing people to go through training creates a backlash against diversity."
Diversity courses are “more symbolic than substantive" says University of California LAW Professor, Lauren Edelman, She independently reviewed Kalev's study and concluded that the problem was training in "response to the general legal environment and the fact that organizations copy one another."
Kochan: built on sand
Thomas Kochan, Professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management’s five year study had previously come to the same conclusions, "The diversity industry is built on sand," he concluded. "The business case rhetoric for diversity is simply naive and overdone. There are no strong positive or negative effects of gender or racial diversity on business performance." The problem, according to Kochan, is the bogus claim that diversity leads to increased productivity. This is simply unproven as there is little or no hard data on the subject. Kochan found that none of the companies he contacted for his study had carried out any systematic evaluation of diversity training. Evidence around productivity is mostly anecdotal and repeated as a mantra by interested parties.
Pendry & Stewart: no evaluative evidence
Louise Pendry of Exeter University claims that there’s no evaluative evidence showing that these programmes work. Even worse, many may do more harm than good. Tracie Stewart, a professor at Georgia University, has identified "backlash" or "victim blame", after some courses, where the learners harbour resentment against other minority groups for the way they are made to feel. Rather than bringing people together, it may be reinforcing differences.
Munira Mirza: damning testimonies
Munira Mirza investigated diversity training for the BBC and uncovered some awful training, including the popular Jane Elliot’s ‘blue eyes/brown eyes’ classroom courses. What was interesting were the comments posted after the broadcast:
When I was about 12 we had a policeman come in to school to talk about racism. He showed us a photo of a white man in police uniform running after a black man in jeans. He asked us what we thought was going on. Everyone- including a black child that he pointedly asked -said that it was a criminal being chased by a policeman. We were then told that we had made a "racist assumption" as actually the black bloke was a plain-clothes police officer. No-one raised the point that we would have probably said the exact same thing if the plain clothes officer had been white and a load of 12 year olds were told that they were racist. How helpful was that?
You cannot over-estimate the damage to race relations that "diversity awareness" training is causing in this country. It's having the opposite effect to that intended, causing divisions, resentment, and an increase in judgements based on race, where previously such things were actually quite rare. How do I know this? I was involved in putting together a diversity "toolkit" for a government department, and saw first-hand the effect it had as it was rammed down the throats of the staff.
Michael, Brighton UK
This is an example of companies trying to see if two wrongs really do make a right. I don't doubt that some people are racist in the workplace, but punishing many because of the actions of a few is ludicrous.
Andy Thorley, Crewe, Cheshire
Companies, worldwide spend many hundreds of millions of dollars each year on diversity training. The tragic truth is that most of this is wasted. Groupthink seems to be at the heart of the matter. Groupthink among people who employ and promote people like themselves creates the problem. Groupthink among compliance training companies ,who simply do what they do without supporting evidence and tout ineffective ‘courses’. Groupthink in HR, who find it easier to just run ‘courses’ rather than tackle real business problems. The whole edifice is a house of cards.
One of the problems, that Dobbin, Kalev and Kochan found, was the focus on ‘sensitivity training’ where people are often forced to focus on interpersonal conflict. These were the training courses that produced a backlash, as they were intrinsically accusatory. One bright spot was the finding that some diversity initiatives, namely those that were voluntary and aligned with business goals, were successful. This is similar to Professor Frank Dobbin’s study at Harvard, who showed, in his massive study that ‘training’ was not the answer, and that other management interventions were much better, such as mentoring. Rachel Doleza was sucked into a fake world that does real harm to diversity, equal opportunities and diversity in the workplace. We don't solve these problems by 'pretending' to be what we are not.