Diversity Training Fails

Most diversity training efforts at US companies are at best ineffective and often even counterproductive in increasing the number of women and minorities in managerial positions. Decades of conventional wisdom have been shown to be horribly flawed and erroneous by a recent study of the long-term effects of diversity training in the American workplace.

An in-depth recent American Sociological Review study performed by by Alexandra Kalev of UC Berkeley, Frank Dobbin of Harvard, and Erin Kelly of the University of Minnesota reviewed 31 years of data from 830 mid-size to large U.S. and found that the kind of diversity training exercises offered at most firms were followed by:

  • A 7.5% drop in the overall number of women in management.
  • A 10% drop in the number of Black, female managers
  • A 12% drop in the number of Black men in top positions.
  • Similar drops in management were seen for Latinos and Asians.

The sociologists’ study shows that organizational responsibility and accountability make a difference; diversity training and evaluation don’t. It begs the question – why didn’t the EEOC examine these issues years ago?

Kalev’s, Dobbin’s’ and Kelly’s analysis did not find that all diversity training is useless. Specifically, it showed that mandatory programs – most often undertaken mainly with an eye to avoiding liability in discrimination lawsuits – were the problem. In those cases where diversity training is voluntary and undertaken to advance a company’s business goals, it was associated with increased diversity in management.

When attendance is voluntary, diversity training is followed by an increase in managerial diversity. Most employers, however, force their managers and workers to go through training, and this is the least effective option in terms of increasing diversity. . . . Forcing people to go through training creates a backlash against diversity.

— Alexandra Kalev

Today, U.S. companies spend $200 – $300 million per year on diversity training, but the new study is one of the first systematic analysis of their efficacy. What the study found is that programs work best when they are voluntary and focus on specific organizational skills, such as establishing mentoring relationships and giving women and minorities a chance to prove their worth in high-profile roles.

Many diversity trainers and corporate executives expressed little or no surprise at the study’s findings. Kalev believes this means that many companies are not just pursuing poor policies, but are doing so even though their own experts know the training is ineffective or counterproductive. There seems to be two possible reasons why US firms would continue to spend 100’s of millions of dollars on something that doesn’t work:

  • The first is the possibility that businesses are responding to the current legal environment in the US; several Supreme Court rulings have held that companies with mandatory diversity training are in a stronger position if they face a discrimination lawsuit.
  • The second possibility is that many companies – with the cooperation of diversity trainers – find it easier to offer exercises that serve public relations goals, rather than to address any existent issues.

American companies have wasted over three decades and billions of dollars on programs that do not work in an effort to protect themselves in court and meet the “social obligation” placed upon them in the post MLK, post Friedan years. That’s a lot of time and money flushed away without much to show for it.

Is it possible – reasonably even – to theorize that US companies willingness to do the minimum needed to protect themselves from lawsuits and further their public image, as opposed addressing the underlying issues, is a result of the same sort of backlash and foot dragging shown by individuals in Kalev’s study? Did the government’s and society’s requirement for diversity in corporate management actually make that goal less obtainable?

Tags: | | | | | | |

13 Responses to “Diversity Training Fails”

  1. aafke Says:

    In the Netherlands such expenses would probably be tax-deductable. That might have something to do with it?
    I think both your reasons are probably valid.
    And is that money really wasted? Think of all those trainers, developers, executive managers of the ”Diversity Training” industry! They all get good incomes and pay taxes! πŸ™‚
    How about those managers of the ”diversity Training” industry; how many black/ethnic/coloured, non christian, female executives would they themselves have? Has anybody looked into that?

    I very much wonder what exactely they are teaching at these diversity trainings?
    And you could hold it up the trainers, and the developers of the trainings, that they are doing a pretty grotty job!

    So, It’ll be interesting if the whole ”diversity-training-industry” would now fall on it’s ass. But I bet business will go on as usual. If something juicy happens you’ll tell us I hope?

  2. jonolan Says:

    I suppose it’s tax deductible in the US as well. I also never thought of the benefit of having a whole new industry available to the economy! LOL! You havean interesting and humorous outlook!

    I too would expect the whole mandatory diversity training scheme to continue unbated. After all it protects companies from discrimination lawsuits and improve their public image. Who cares if it doesn’t address the problem that it purports to?

  3. Kim Says:

    Forgive me for my ignorance on this topic. Where does diversity training fall under affirmative action? Is this a new word for affirmative action? I have long felt that programs such as these have done more harm than good. And isn’t it the white male that is the minority now? All jobs should be awarded on knowledge and experience.

    Is it just me or are there too many problems in the world to try to fix?

    Off topic. I am wondering if you know anything about recall elections. More specifically, how it would/could be applied in NY.

  4. aafke Says:

    LOL: If jobs were really awarded on knowledge and experience, thΓ©n white males would probably be in the minority now. πŸ™‚

  5. Kim Says:

    Hey now! LOL

  6. jonolan Says:


    Affirmative Action is a legal process whereby institutions – universities, corporations, government agencies, etc… – must give at least marginally preferential treatment to minority groups. Diversity training is a follow-on program to ensure that that these minorities are well treated and promoted within those institutions.

    A great deal of the diversity training curriculum is teaching people about the various anti-discrimination laws and how to report people or institutions who violate them.

    Off Topic: Simply put, recall elections are not allowed in New York.

  7. robert roels Says:

    Hi Jonolan;

    My clients are US companies that range in gross revenues from $5 to $700 Million a year. They are a reflection of most businesses.

    I have yet to see this type of training in California with my clients.

    As a matter of fact, most middle management have had no training as managers period. They learn as they go.

    It appears that this Diversification Training may make it even worse that the quality of managers that are out there now. Its ludicrous, we can send a man to the moon and are still trying to figure out how to manage πŸ™‚


  8. jonolan Says:


    I’m shocked that you haven’t seen diversity training in the California companies; I would have thought that CA would be the epicenter of such things.

    The study shows that it’s not that diversity training is necessarily bad – though I’ve witnessed some horrible examples – but that, when it’s mandated it tends to have little or no positive effect. Companies will always tend towards spending the least necessary to protect themselves.

  9. Steph Says:

    Having a pussy might be a qualification for some professions but it should never be a qualification for a managerial role. Having an unqualified or incompetent employee in a position of responsibility hurts the company and disempowers the individual because guess what? They know they’re crap at their job and they know everyone else does too.

    Affirmative action is discrimination.

  10. jonolan Says:

    Welcome back, Steph!

    Yes, I’d have to agree with you on that. Affirmative Action was a necessary but harsh medicine for an earlier, sicker American society, but it cannot be thought of as a “maintenance regimen.” There has reached a point where racial and gender diversity has become a holy grail instead of an offshoot of practical and good business and societal practices.

  11. Steph Says:

    We never had affirmative action in employment or education because it’s illegal under European law but we have diversity training and women get paid not to work four days a month.

  12. aafke Says:

    Another danger by placing somebody in a responsible job who might not be quite up for it is: You also wouldn’t want to re-enforce the traditional urban myths: See, it’s proven: women can’t be managers/good drivers/etc.
    What we want is to cut loose from stereotyping, and perheaps a more complete acknowligment of women/coloured/ethnic, etc. people, as possible capable talented persons in their own right.

  13. hanzada naguib Says:

    I think what is happening here is that most of the respectful colleagues are under-mining the benefits corporations may attain , if they just took enough time to carefully assess their business needs.

    It goes beyond visible demographic variations, or mere compliance with laws. We are dealing with a complex asset , human beings with different backgrounds, attitudes, and competence.It’s not the counting of males and females, it’s the mindset behind adopting a negative attitude sometimes unconsciously against the other.

    Let’s go through the main reasons why such arguments still exist : a) Diversity training is poorly planned and measured; b)The nature of the specific requirements of every workforce is not met (needs may vary among levels); c)Human capital is not properly audited, despite its huge increasing importance.

    Finally, it’s the change resistance inside each one of us, we are still prisoners of the archaic bias against each other. Open up for change, at least consider new ways of measuring.

    Think of Diversity management as a continuum where you use proper feed back to optimize it, but don’t discard it altogether.

Leave a Reply