Does Diversity Training Work? Time for an Evidence-Based Answer

Key Points

  • Diversity training strongly enhances people’s knowledge about other groups. It also affects people’s beliefs and how they behave towards others, but this effect fades over time.
  • Implementing other diversity-related initiatives simultaneously with the training amplifies its effects on beliefs and behaviors, also helping them last in time.
  • Diversity training works better if it focuses on building both awareness about biases and skills for interaction.

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Every time you read the news these days, there’s at least one story about actions motivated by differences between people: protests, hateful declarations, dismissals, terrorism acts, or migration. It seems like everyone is shouting louder that they don’t accept and don’t want to cooperate with other groups. However, there’s one place where cooperation is necessary: the workplace. With so many instances of division, leaders must take responsibility for giving people opportunities to collaborate and, thus, foster inclusion in the workplace. Can diversity training help leaders build a more inclusive workplace? What can we do to increase the chances for diversity training to work?

What’s the evidence for diversity training?

When we talk about diversity training, we usually refer to any instructional program aimed at helping people with different backgrounds and attributes work together more effectively. Such programs have existed for a long time, but a search on internet reveals a lot of confusion in the popular press about their effectiveness. In 2016, Katerina Bezrukova, Chester Spell, and Jamie Perry – from the USA, and Karen Jehn – from Australia, investigated whether diversity training works and, if so, when it works best. They selected 260 most rigorous studies – experimental, quasi-experimental, and pre-post designs – so they could provide a more trustworthy answer than what the popular press usually offers. They conducted a meta-analysis to answer two questions: Does diversity training really help people interact better with others, especially those from different backgrounds? When is diversity training most effective?

Does diversity training work?

Three things define our interactions with others who are different from us: our knowledge, our attitudes, and our actions. Diversity training has a positive effect on all three elements, but in different ways. Right after the training, people change their beliefs and behaviors to some extent, but they acquire even more in terms of knowledge. As time passes, people will remember the new knowledge, but their beliefs and behaviors tend to revert back to how they were before the training.

Why does the effect of the training course persist for knowledge, but fades for beliefs and behaviors? The answer might lie in what happens around us after diversity training. We might come across news or stories which remind us of what we have learned in the diversity training, and these connections keep the information fresh in our mind. But then, when we try to make sense of these stories, we tend to see them in the light of our previous beliefs about the topic. It’s generally harder to change beliefs, because they’re strongly linked to our emotions and our self-identity. However, we have some choices which make the diversity training work better even for beliefs and behaviors.

When does diversity training work best?

Certain conditions and training design characteristics can maximize the impact of diversity training.

A thorough and integrated approach

First, the longer the diversity training, the more effective it is. Longer training means participants have more opportunities to come into contact with others who are different, so interactions feel more comfortable and “right”. A longer training period also means everyone has more time to practice.

Similarly, the change will more likely last if it’s actively sustained through other diversity-related initiatives alongside the training. Employees might see that the management is truly committed to fostering inclusion, and the training is not just a tick-in-the-box on some legal requirement. Acknowledging this, employees might also be more motivated to learn during the training and apply their learnings afterwards.

A focus on awareness and skills

The focus of the training is also important: the most effective training courses develop both awareness and skills. In such training, firstly, participants become more aware of their own and others’ cultural values and biases, and then, they also monitor their actions and practice appropriate responses in interactions with diverse groups of people.

Mandatory vs. voluntary

As for training attendance, people might like mandatory training less, but they may be more likely change their behaviors following it. On the one hand, people tend to like having the freedom to decide things for themselves. On the other hand, it’s possible that a voluntary training will attract people interested in the topic, who already behave positively, therefore they have less to change in the way they interact with people who are different from themselves.

Takeaways for your practice

Diversity training is the first effective step towards building a more inclusive environment where diverse people interact better with each other. Training courses will help employees know more about others who are different. To also have a lasting change on what employees believe and how they behave, follow some additional tips:

  • Make the change in people’s beliefs and behaviors stick by starting other diversity initiatives. You can organize networking programs which facilitate contact between employees, so they get used to interacting with different people and consider it part of the normal way of behaving.
  • Consider assigning responsibility: appoint specific people to define and track diversity-related metrics in different areas of the organization, such as recruitment or development. This way, you are more likely to see how data compare to desired diversity-related objectives.
  • Make sure training is long enough for participants to interact with each other and to discover things they have in common. When designing the training, start with the content and methods, leaving enough time to practice, and decide on the duration with this in mind. Don’t decide the duration first and then squeeze in whatever fits, as this is not the right approach.
  • During training, focus on both awareness and skills. Help participants realise how people differ from each other and the biases we all have. Ask people to monitor and reflect on their current ways of behaving, and practice more helpful alternatives.

We thank Katerina Bezrukova, Ph.D. and Chester S. Spell, Ph.D., who supported and guided us with their valuable insights during the writing of this Evidence Summary.

Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the study we used to inform this summary. We found that it has a very high (95%) trustworthiness level. This means that there is only a 5% chance that alternative explanations for these results are possible, including random effects.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

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Bezrukova, K., Spell, C. S., Perry, J. L., & Jehn, K. A. (2016). A Meta-Analytical Integration of Over 40 Years of Research on Diversity Training Evaluation. Psychological Bulletin.

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