Is Diversity Training a Bad Bet?

Print Share on LinkedIn More
Microphone

Falling down from stage / raphaelstrada

July 6, 2016; Washington Post

Over the last few years, NPQ has tracked the studies that examine the diversity of boards and staffs, both in particular fields like museums, foundations, and the environment and in the nonprofit sector as a whole. Those studies have revealed a disappointing lack of movement, and a recent article in the Harvard Business Review may highlight a small part of the reason why in what the authors characterize as a set of practices that have retarded progress toward diversity and inclusion.

After an extensive look at financial services organizations that invested heavily in so-called diversity efforts, the authors suggest that the most common tactics used to eliminate bias in the workplace diversity are (at least among managers) largely motivated by fear of lawsuits and have failed miserably to deliver the promised advances in diversity and inclusion. Their research led them to conclude that that, perversely, the methods the companies studied had been using to reduce bias may have increased it in the end.

We urge you to read the article in full and to see the entirely different set of approaches it recommends. But to pique your interest, we offer here some of the bare bones of the findings.

Between 2003 and 2014, the proportion of Hispanic managers in firms using these types of tactics did rise—from 4.7 percent in 2003 to 5.7 percent in 2014—but white women’s representation dropped from 39 percent to 35 percent, and black men’s from 2.5 percent to 2.3 percent. Likewise, in U.S. companies with 100 or more employees, diversity has stalled even as it continues to increase in the general population. In these companies, between 1985 and 2014, the proportion of black men in management increased just slightly (from 3 percent to 3.3 percent) and while white women’s ranks rose from 22 percent in 1985 to 29 percent in 2000, their numbers have remained there since.

The authors assert that this should be no surprise since “despite a few new bells and whistles, courtesy of big data, companies are basically doubling down on the same approaches they’ve used since the 1960s—which often make things worse, not better.” These approaches, they write, include diversity trainings aimed at reducing bias in the workplace, hiring tests and performance ratings meant to increase race-blind decision-making, and grievance systems. All of these, write the authors, are aimed more at preventing lawsuits than anything else. Further, policing efforts like these can activate bias as a kind of expression of autonomy.

In other words, a linear, mandatory, command-and-control approach to diversity training, gussied up with the looming threat of potential lawsuits, does not work; it only elicits anger and resentment among those being trained who are required to use the prophylactic systems. “Your organization will become less diverse, not more, if you require managers to go to diversity training, try to regulate their hiring and promotion decisions, and put in a legalistic grievance system.”

The problematic element appears to be the requirement to use these tools. Companies with mandatory diversity training found that, five years out, there were no gains in the proportion of white women, black men, and Hispanics in management. The proportion of black women in management actually decreased by nine percent, while the number of Asian-American men and women shrank by four percent to five percent. Trainers say people often responded to compulsory courses with anger and resistance, and even animosity toward minority colleagues. Making trainings voluntary training vastly improved the results.

Mandating hiring tests essentially elicited the same responses from white managers, who would manage around tests meant to provide a flat playing field and hire who they wished.

Kellogg professor Lauren Rivera played a fly on the wall during hiring meetings at one firm. She found that the team paid little attention when white men blew the math test but close attention when women and blacks did. Because decision makers (deliberately or not) cherry-picked results, the testing amplified bias rather than quashed it.

Similarly, relatively few companies use written job tests for managers, but those that do have seen decreases of between four and ten percent in the share of managerial jobs held by white women, African-American men and women, Hispanic men and women, and Asian-American women over the five years pursuant to instituting the practice.

More than 90 percent of mid-size and large companies, though, use annual performance ratings to try to ensure fair decisions around pay and promotion and provide a kind of litigation shield. Companies sued for discrimination often claim their performance rating systems prevent biased treatment, but this measure has produced no effect on the ranks of minority managers over the ensuing five years, while the proportion of white women in management has dropped. As for grievance procedures, which are meant to provide recourse, they also seem correlated with a decline of between three and eleven percent of white women and all minority groups except Hispanic men in management in the five years after companies adopt them.

Here’s the good news: Tactics that focus on creation of inclusiveness rather than control or avoidance of lawsuits do work. Mentoring programs, self-managed teams, and task forces have proven successful in advancing diversity despite not having been designed for that express purpose.

We realize the setting for these studies differs significantly from the work of most of our readers, but we would love to hear from you on the lessons to be drawn from this study.—Ruth McCambridge