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Why Is Diversity Important in the Workplace?

And does diversity training actually work?

Young female leader standing and making presentation at modern office

The U.S. is becoming more diverse by the day, but are workplaces? Women and people of color are still sorely underrepresented in leadership positions. And many workplaces are still astonishingly homogenous—especially at the executive level.

It shows in the data. Human resources consulting firm Mercer found that while whites represented 64% of entry-level workers in the U.S., they made up 85% of top executive positions. And women and minorities continue to make less than their white male colleagues, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

The good news is that many organizations are making diversity and inclusion central goals. They’re hiring diversity officers, conducting diversity training, and making workspaces more inclusive.

A diverse workforce is more likely to understand customers’ needs and brainstorm creative solutions to fulfill them. Diversity in the workplace also tends to improve employee morale, reduce employee turnover, and boost people’s desire to collaborate. This is a win for both businesses and workers.

But thinking you can mandate diversity training and expect instant harmony is fantasy.

If you really want to change your workplace for the better, you need to commit—really commit—to creating an atmosphere of inclusivity. And that requires adopting the right approach.

Outright hostility may no longer be tolerated in most workplaces, but microaggressions can fly under the radar. And it’s precisely these kinds of I-didn’t-mean-anything-by-that moments that can create a hostile working environment. It’s no wonder reports of racial discrimination at work are still incredibly common.

What Is Diversity Training?

The purpose of diversity training is—or should be—to stamp out discrimination and prejudice within an organization.

It’s not about asking employees to simply “tolerate” each other. It’s about helping them see the value in embracing differences and considering others’ perspectives and opinions, regardless of race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, and so on.

Here are some of the purported benefits of diversity training:

Increases awareness

When done right, diversity training helps employees become more aware of how implicit/unconscious biases (hidden attitudes based on social stereotypes) impact the way we relate to others. With this information they can start to identify how it shows up in real-world situations.

Makes space for different perspectives and innovation

A good diversity training program will help employees see the value of collaborating with people of different races, cultural backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, and beliefs. Diverse teams bring a broad range of perspectives to the table, and these perspectives inform solutions to problems. Research shows that inclusive companies are nearly two times as likely to be innovation leaders in their market.

Promotes sensitivity

When people are encouraged to consider others’ feelings and perspectives, they’re more likely to think about how their actions could offend or harm others. This awareness can help prevent discrimination and harassment.

But Does Diversity Training Actually Work?

You’d be forgiven for wondering whether diversity training programs are just another shallow attempt for businesses to appear woke—especially after all the performative allyship that went on in response to last year’s racial justice protests.

The question is, does diversity training actually work? The answer according to researchers from Harvard and Tel Aviv University is: Not the way most businesses do it today.

Diversity programs that police the thoughts and actions of managers and other personnel can make things worse—especially when diversity and inclusion training is used as a thinly veiled attempt to prevent lawsuits.

People don’t like to be told how to think or what to do—for examples of this, look no further than the backlash to mask mandates and lockdowns in the COVID era.

What Actually Works

According to the Harvard sociologists, the problem is that organizations are trying to reduce bias with the same kinds of programs they’ve been using since the 1960s. The tools these programs use, such as hiring tests, performance ratings, and—notably—diversity training, tend to make things worse, not better.

The researchers analyzed data collected over several decades by more than 800 organizations. What they found is that “force-feeding” information can activate bias rather than stamp it out—a reaction that has been confirmed in lab studies.

It’s common for people to react to compulsory diversity training courses with anger and resistance. Some end up feeling even more animosity toward other groups.

Voluntary training, on the other hand, tends to produce the opposite response. Companies that implemented voluntary diversity training programs showed a 9% to 13% increase in Black men, Hispanic men, and Asian-American men and women in management five years out (with no declines in white and Black women in management).

The researchers concluded that solutions that don’t focus on control are more successful. They recommend diversity programs that:

  • Engage managers in solving problems rather than simply forcing compulsory diversity training

  • Increase contact with female and minority workers

  • Promote social accountability, playing on the desires of people to appear fair-minded

Forcing people to go to diversity training with threats of punishment almost always backfires, making organizations less diverse in the long run.

The lesson here is this: If you’re a business owner with a strong sense of social responsibility who genuinely wants a diverse team from all walks of life, invest the time and resources to find a diversity program based on the best social science available—not simply one with a catchy marketing pitch.

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