Does Diversity Training Work?

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For a long time, diversity training, normally the bailiwick of the human resources department, has been a staple of corporate education programs. The intention of such programs is to prevent lawsuits and also to create an atmosphere at a company where all of the employees are valued and respected regardless of their background. The idea also is that this training would increase diversity in the workplace.

The problem is that research is showing that diversity programs don’t work. For example, one study of more than 800 companies that took place over a period of more than 30 years showed that diversity training really had no effect at all on worker attitudes. Moreover, it also didn’t increase the diversity at the companies.

Diversity programs actually made the problem worse. This is because these programs, instead of highlighting people as individuals, emphasized people as members of a certain category, classifying them by age, gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation, for example. And this actually encouraged prejudice, because that is what prejudice is – shoving a person into a category without looking at him or her as a real human being, an individual. Putting people into categories makes them less human, it reduces the complexity of what it is to be a person, and so emphasizing the categories actually works to increase prejudice, according to business consultant Peter Bregman.

What businesses should be doing, Bregman says, is not focusing on diversity, but on people as people. Employees don’t need training in the concept of diversity, but in how to work with a variety of people, people who happen to have different personalities and backgrounds. What people need to learn is how to communicate well – conveying bad news as well as good with understanding and empathy. And employees need to be counseled against putting other people into categories, to not think of someone as a black person, a Muslim, or gay, but just as a person.

So, instead of focusing on diversity, companies need to focus on communication training, Bregman says. That way, people will learn to listen to each other, to talk with each other instead of talking at or past each other. And they need to learn to do this no matter who the other person may be, which in the end will go a lot further toward creating a diverse environment than any diversity training would.

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