Peter Bregman, one of my favorite bloggers, had an interesting post on Harvard Business Review recently called Diversity Training Doesn’t Work.   He cites dismal statistics on the ineffectiveness of diversity training from recent research, some of which even concludes that “in firms where training is mandatory or emphasizes the threat of lawsuits, training actually has negative effects on management of diversity.”

The problem, Bregman says, is that by segregating people into categories and focusing on their difference, we promote bias rather than eradicating it. “Categories are dehumanizing,” he says.  “They simplify the complexity of a human being. So focusing people on the categories increases their prejudice. ”

I agree with everything except his conclusion that diversity training doesn’t work.  Diversity training can work–it just has to be good diversity training.

Good diversity training consists in training employees to value each others’ differences.  It’s a team building session, really.  Good diversity training explores tools and techniques for getting to know teammates better, and emphasizes the importance of finding ways to let people’s differences contribute to the mission.  Here are some examples of great ideas I’ve heard from folks during diversity seminars:

  • We’re using Generation Y workers to mentor older workers in the use of social media
  • We’re using gay and lesbian employees to help our marketing people understand ways to tap into the GLBT market for our products
  • We’re using our people of color to help design products that appeal to niche markets within their diverse communities (or for public sector organizations, to help us understand better how to serve the diverse needs of our public)

The other thing that good diversity training does is focus on ways to build relationships and improve the quality of leadership.  There’s plenty of research out there that says people don’t sue people who make mistakes–they sue people whom they feel mistreated or disrespected by.  Patients, for example, often tell their lawyers that they don’t want to sue the specialist who actually made the mistake because they like that particular doctor; instead, they want to sue their primary physician who has a lousy bedside manner and doesn’t appear to care.  Likewise, employees don’t sue because a well-meaning supervisor accidentally missed a step in an EEO-related policy or procedure; they sue because the supervisor is a jerk who doesn’t appear to value the employee’s contributions.

Maybe it’s really a matter of semantics.  Maybe good diversity training is not called diversity training, but rather, leadership or team building training.  But good leadership and team building training will always have a diversity component.  The answer is most certainly not to throw diversity training out the door.


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