Tips for Diversity Training at Work: What Works and What Doesn’t

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A lot of companies are rightly concerned about acquiring a more diverse workforce. I’d say that’s just the right thing to do from a societal perspective, but beyond that there’s a lot of research showing that diverse organizations are more innovative and generally perform better.

And likewise, a lot of organizations are working to create a more welcome, accepting, and inclusive environment for their workers. Makes sense, right? And that includes spending a lot of time creating, delivering, and consuming (as learners) well-intended diversity training activities and programs. Also makes sense, right?

The problem is that studies show a lot of this training is ineffective. Which isn’t so good.

But the Learning Guild, and Dr. Jane Bozarth, have come to the rescue with a meaty, 33-page, research-based report titled What Works–and What Doesn’t–in Diversity Training (download a copy for yourself here).

If you’re not familiar with the Learning Guild, their Research Library, or learning researcher Jane Bozarth, put them all on your list of things to learn more about, right there alongside “how to make my diversity training more effective.”

We encourage you to read the entire report, and we’ll summarize a few of the key findings for you below.

What Bozarth Found in Her Literature Review

In short, the literature includes a lot of points of agreement about what works and doesn’t and not a lot of dissent.

What Kind of Diversity Are We Talking About?

Diversity training includes diversity related to:

  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Age
  • Disabilities
  • More

Why We Need Diversity Training–Your Introduction to Social Identity Theory

First, we need diversity training because we’re a diverse society, our workplaces are diverse, we benefit from diversity, creating an inclusive and welcoming work environment for diverse workers is the right thing to do, and we’re not always especially good at that last point, sadly.

Bozarth introduces social identify theory in this context, and quotes researchers King & Gilrane in explaining it this way:

Social identity theory suggests that people understand and value themselves in relation to the social groups of which they are a part. These social groupings spur preferences for similar others and disfavoring of people from other social groups. In simple terms, we like people from our own group more than people from other groups. This can lead to dysfunctional behavior such as incivility, biased decision making, and ineffective group processes. King & Gilrane, 2015, as quoted by Bozarth in this report.

Is the News All Bad?


A lot of the diversity training we conduct isn’t effective, but Bozarth’s report points out some common problems, some things that don’t work, and some better things to do that do help out.

So, know that a lot of what we’ve been doing re: diversity training isn’t helpful, but take inspiration that we can all learn to do better and play a role in creating a more diverse, inclusive, healthy working environment.

Problem Issue: Mandatory v. Voluntary

A lot of companies make diversity training mandatory for all employees, and frankly that makes sense.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the right decision. That’s because when people are forced to attend mandatory training, they feel controlled. And they don’t like feeling controlled. And that may actually cause people to be more instead of less biased at work.

So a surprising suggestion in the report is to either make diversity training voluntary or do nothing (instead of making it mandatory).

Problem Issue: Focusing on Awareness

A lot of training wrongly focuses on knowledge instead of skills. That’s true in poorly designed safety training, for example, which focuses on raising awareness of hazards instead of teaching people skills to work safely.

That same focus on awareness is often seen in compliance training and, to the point of today’s article, diversity training.

Its not that awareness is bad, but awareness doesn’t necessarily bring about behavior change. What we need to do is model correct behaviors, let people practice them, give them feedback on their behaviors, and support behavior change over time.

Issues revolving around knowledge, skills, behavior change, and performance improvement are central to a lot of training challenges. Check out our Facilitating Behavior Change discussion with Arun Pradhan and our more recent recorded discussion about Supporting Behavior Change at Work  with Julie Dirksen for more on these issues.

Problem Issue: Calling it Diversity Training

People sometimes resist “diversity training.” As a result, you might want to rebrand your diversity training with names like “Building Effective Workplace Relations” or “Workplace Communications Essentials” or something like that.

Some Things to Try to Make Your Diversity Training More Effective

Here are some tips from the Learning Guide report:

  1. Make diversity training voluntary, not mandatory (as explained already)
  2. Don’t use diversity training as punishment or remediation–people dig in and the problem gets worse
  3. Consider some new training strategies, including a focus on skills and behavior change instead of just awareness; note similarities between people; supplement diversity training with other diversity efforts at work; ask workers to debate from the point of view of others; have workers set specific goals for their own job performance related to diversity; involve workers in the design and development of diversity training
  4. Provide post-training coaching, support, and spaced practice
  5. Evaluate your diversity training efforts to see if they’re working, in particular at Kirkpatrick Levels 3 and 4 (on-the-job behavior observations and effect on business goals)
  6. Call it something else, but not diversity training (workplace relationships, communications, etc.)–also explained earlier

We hope you found this brief overview of the Learning Guild article on diversity training helpful. Please read the entire report and good luck putting its recommendations to work. And of course, feel free to check out our series of online diversity & inclusion training courses, part of our professional development training library.

Before you go, please feel free to download our free guide to writing learning objectives, which should help you sharpen up on the difference between knowledge and skills at work.

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How to Write Learning Objectives

Get this free guide to learn all you need to know to write learning objectives, create better training, and help improve workplace performance.

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