Three ways to ensure diversity training actually works

More and more employers are trying to increase the diversity of their staff – and rightly so. A recent report from management consulting firm McKinsey found that greater diversity within an organisation leads to greater productivity and profit, and improves problem solving, innovation and creativity.

Implementing a better understanding and appreciation of diversity can be cost effective too. In the UK for example, Transport for London spent £1.3 million on diversity training for 2,000 managers, with the expectation that the measure would avoid significant expenses associated with tribunals and disciplinary procedures. A spokesperson later said the organisation went on to make savings 12 times the cost of the diversity programme.

Diversity training then, should be a positive move when it comes to dealing with incidents of discrimination, greater staff harmony and even from a financial perspective. Yet there are also occasions when diversity training has had a negative effect on employees.

For example, it can create resentment among members of the majority group, who are disgruntled about the apparent focus on a minority. There have also been instances where participants have complained of the stereotyping of minority groups, and cases where participants have found diversity training to be traumatic.

Indeed there is no consensus about its overall effectiveness. So far, the evidence suggests that diversity training works best after a critical incident such as an act of discrimination (either internal or external to the organisation), although the behavioural impact is often short-lived.

To ensure any diversity training programme has the maximum positive impact, organisations need to be mindful of important factors including the method of delivery, who attends, and what happens next.

Here are three ways to ensure diversity training has the desired positive effect:

1. Make it face to face

This is an area often overlooked by organisations considering diversity training. Yet research shows that face-to-face training is the most beneficial method as it allows participants to ask questions and develop conversations.

Small workshop groups – which can easily be organised on Zoom – are better at promoting honest and open exchanges than text-based computer courses or pre-recorded training packages, which are usually aimed at individual employees.

Unfortunately face-to-face training can be expensive, which is why many organisations opt instead for e-learning using an online or pre-recorded course. E-learning does mean greater flexibility for course completion (and might be a welcome alternative during pandemic-induced work restrictions) but can give the training a “tick-box exercise” feeling, especially within minority groups.

2. Make it mandatory

Previous research has shown that employees with lower diversity competence levels were less likely to take part in voluntary diversity training, and staff with an interest most likely to take part.

Mandatory training overcomes this problem and shows that an organisation is serious about diversity, equality and inclusion. Research suggests it also brings greater changes in staff behaviour.

It is also important for senior managers and executives to participate in diversity training as well as their staff. Doing so is a clear demonstration of its importance, and something which will echo throughout the organisation. Senior staff have great influence on the diversity of an organisation through recruitment and business strategy.

Avoid the box ticking approach.
Shutterstock/BeeBright

3. Have a post-training plan in place

Training can be seen as the final step of diversity management, but in reality it is often the first. Diversity training should be used to prevent acts of discrimination rather than just as an intervention for when an incident has taken place. Ways of continuing diversity management post-training include mentoring programmes, encouraging “diversity champions” – employees tasked with driving diversity forward within a company – and organising employee networks.

Diversity training is sometimes delivered in isolation, and then not spoken about until the next incident occurs. This is neither productive nor an efficient use of resources. Training needs to be part of a plan – not the whole plan – for better diversity management.

Improving an organisation’s approach to diversity training using the above methods has the capacity to be extremely effective – and not just for the organisation and its employees.

The long-term positive effects can extend into wider society. Diversity awareness does not begin or end in the workplace, but can be a powerful force for positive change.

by : Anthony R. Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Entrepreneurship, University of South Wales

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