I read about this yesterday on Contexts Crawler, which hunts out sociology-related news from all over the country. The article is about employer diversity training, and reports that research shows that the training may be doing more harm than good:

About two-thirds of companies engage in diversity training, according to a 2005 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Yet most corporate efforts at diversity education backfire, resulting in a more homogeneous work force, according to researchers who analyzed 30 years of data at more than 800 U.S. companies.

The trouble, they say, is that most sessions are mandatory, as opposed to voluntary, and focus on legal dangers, not the business benefits of diversity.

“They force their workers and managers to sit through this training, and they hit them in the head with the possible legal sanctions,” said one of the researchers, Alexandra Kalev, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Arizona.

Apparently, diversity increases only when the sessions are voluntary, as people tend not to feel as put-off by the legal issues and less personally threatened.

I’m sure there are good reasons for this finding (although I wonder if the research distinguished between those trainings that were legal is nature but voluntary, and those trainings that were obligatory but not only about legal issues. In other words, maybe the trainings that tended to be legal were also obligatory, which could confound the results). But then they say this:

Janis Sanchez, chairwoman of Old Dominion University’s psychology department, regularly conducts diversity training .

“Mandatory does get everybody in the same room,” she said. “I think having people who are very resistant allows us to get the topics right out there.”

Kalev said, however, that it’s OK if one-fifth of your employees don’t attend.

“Those 20 percent are probably closed-minded, and you don’t want to force them into the room,” she said. “The others will convert the 20 percent or make them not count.”

Really? If making the meetings mandatory resulted in a lack of results, and if 20% of the employees really don’t want to be there, isn’t this evidence that the 20% who don’t want diversity training are in positions of power where they make decisions that affect diversity? How do we know that this 20% are not the managers and executives? Maybe the resentment is only fostered and activated when having to do obligatory training. But I don’t think the training is the only time people have been exposed to these ideas. My gut feeling is that the trainings do little for diversity whether or not they are obligatory IF people who are intolerant of diversity are in positions of power.

But I haven’t done (or read) the research, just the journalistic article, so I’m only conjecturing here. I do think there is some good research out there on this by the authors (kalev-dobbin-kelly-2006) cited in this article, if you’re interested.

2 thoughts on “really?

  1. This is such a complex topic; I’ve been working off and on for a couple of weeks on a post on a related topic where I can’t quite figure out what I want to say. People can change but you have to have a model of change. I think Kalev’s point would be that if the larger context changes, the structural constraints will change, and then the attitudes of those who don’t want to attend will start responding to the new structures. I’ve heard concerns expressed by some Black activists that diversity training can make things worse if/when it makes Whites feel afraid of minorities, and I can see how an emphasis on legality would do that.


  2. An interesting question as to whether it’s people who are rejecting the training or the format of the training. I tend to move past the beating people over the head with diversity and more toward bringing people together by highlighting the things they have in common. It’s amazing how much more effective diversity training can be if we focus on positive behaviors and the things people share. It gives participants the opportunity to celebrate themselves and others.


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