Thursday, September 6, 2007

Diversity Training: Is anyone measuring outcomes?

When I think of diversity training--often otherwise known as the "Blame and Shame Game"--the first thing that comes to my mind is the episode of The Office called "Diversity Day." If you have diversity training coming up, and you have not yet seen this show, you must stop reading right now and go watch it.

Are you back? All-righty, then.

So Mr. Peevie has a full day of mandated diversity training coming up, and honestly, if it were me, I would have a really bad attitude about it. I can't help but wonder if diversity training has ever been shown to have a positive effect on a person who would otherwise have Neanderthal attitudes about someone because she looks, acts, or thinks differently than he does.

My guess--and this is just a WAG, mind you--is that most organizations that mandate diversity training do so not because it's evidence-based, but because it's expected. So, being the responsible blogger that I am, I googled "diversity training + outcomes" or "+ research." Here's a sampling of some of the relevant hits:

A study described in a 2004 article abstract in Group and Organizational Management concluded that diversity training resulted in a "resentful demoralization of trainees" and that organizations should be aware that "diversity awareness training may not have the desired effects in the absence of a supportive work context."

I totally get this. As a person who values diversity, and who somehow got on the mailing list for Black Expressions book club, I would be totally irritated if I had to take an entire day away from my actual work just to have a 20-something diversity cheerleader lead me in a role-play about diversity. "Resentful" does not begin to describe it.

Another researcher concluded that "Diversity training creates as many problems sometimes as it solves." Uh huh.

And a British blogger pointed me to a 2006 article co-authored by Harvard sociology professor Frank Dobbin with a title that says it all: Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies. The paper suggests that "there are reasons to believe that employers adopt anti-discrimination measures as window-dressing, to inoculate themselves against liability, or to improve morale rather than to increase managerial diversity."

The study also concludes that "practices that target managerial bias through feedback (diversity evaluations) and education (diversity training) show virtually no effect" and "they sometimes show negative effect."

I think (and really, that's what we're all about here in the Green Room) that organizations should swear off of diversity training unless the training is connected to real-life organizational goals and specific, measurable outcomes. I'm not talking about participants saying, "Oh, my this was wonderful!" I'm talking about outcomes that definitively demonstrate that the training actually makes a difference in how people think and act; that it has a positive impact on organizational meeting organizational objectives; that it's not just preaching to the choir.

Michael Scott's idea of diversity training was to stick race labels on people's foreheads, and then have them simulate offensive encounters with one another. In one scene, Michael says to Oscar, who is Mexican: "Um, let me ask you, is there a term besides 'Mexican' that you prefer? Something less offensive?" The Office is the All in the Family for the new millenium.

Here's my idea for making sure that managers are appropriately diversity sensitive: Have them watch this episode of The Office while hooked up to brain sensors. If they register a pre-determined minimum level amusement at the show, leave them alone. If they don't get it, and the sensors register "um, whatever": fire their asses.

Problem solved.


Hpaul said...

Ummm, did you really write "fire their asses"? That could be considered naughty. But, I do think diversity training is patently absurd. Yet, I hate racial prejudice. I hate it, but I dont think any educational device or diversion is going to fix anything. As a wise movie character once opined "Stupid is as stupid does." Or, something like that. I hate racism, yet all my heroes were intolerant. Absolutely, intolerant. Think about it, Harriet Tubman was intolerant of slavery, as was William Wilburforce, Sue Anthony was intolerant of gender prejudice, and ML King was intolerant of racial prejudice. I cant help it, all my heroes were very intolerant. And, I do find that the most allegedly and vocal tolerant people are probably the most stupid in their prejudice.

E. Peevie said...

I'm willing to allow for the possibility that diversity training is beneficial if its evidence-based and tied to organizational goals and objectives. Otherwise, it's just an exercise in window dressing.