You may have seen a series of articles and blog posts regarding the value of diversity training recently, most of which refer to a study which was done by scholars Frank Dobbin, Alexandra Kalev, and Erin Kelly. The gist of these articles is that diversity training is “a waste of time” – and completely ineffective at preventing workplace conflicts, mitigating misunderstandings, or preventing lawsuits. The Bregman article starts off with an anecdote about an HR manager whose company is being sued, lamenting the fact that their company was doing any kind of diversity training at all, since the training has somehow failed to prevent the offending behavior, and the subsequent lawsuit. Interestingly, the HR manager and the author seem to be blaming the training for the lawsuit. The Suzanne Lucas article lists 5 ways to improve communication in the office (ostensibly while ignoring cultural differences or acknowledging any differences at all):
• Don’t look to be offended.¹
(I’m not sure I would suggest to workers that their experience of being offended is a result of their actively looking for it.)
• Treat everyone nicely and fairly.
(This presumes that everyone has the same interpretation of ”nice” and “fair”)
• Look to yourself first- it’s possible to find discrimination around every corner, even if it doesn’t exist. (I don’t think asking “is my coworker equally rude to everyone?” is necessarily the place to start when confronted with behavior that you interpret as discriminatory.)
• Report truly discriminatory behavior to HR or the chain of command
(Given the previous recommendations that one should “not look to be offended”, and that it’s possible “to find discrimination in every corner, even if it doesn’t exist”, how am I supposed to know if it’s “truly discriminatory”)²
What these articles have in common is that their proposed alternative solutions (since diversity training theoretically doesn’t work) focus on “the individual”: Don’t reinforce categories, and treat everyone the same…but as a unique individual. Focus on your own behavior, and your own thinking. The apparent measuring stick for success? The presence or absence of lawsuits.
According to Peter Bregman, acknowledging categories just leads to more conflict, so he proposes “communication training” as a viable and more effective alternative:
“We decided to put all managers through communication training. It still fulfilled the requirement of the lawsuit. But it did something more. People learned to listen and speak with each other — no matter the difference — which is the key to creating a vibrant and inclusive environment. As it turns out, it’s also the key to preventing lawsuits. The communication trainings I led for Bedia were ten years ago and they haven’t been sued since.”³
The obvious question, of course, is what exactly is “communication training”? The author doesn’t explain. It leads me to wonder how people are being taught to communicate? And in what cultural contexts is that communication style the norm? Given that we’re ignoring differences, are we also ignoring differences in communication styles? It’s interesting to attribute a 10-year absence of lawsuits to training done 10 years ago.
The study that all of these articles are referencing is a little bit dated (2007; a more current study by Dobbin can be found here), and after careful review, this particular study cannot be interpreted as stating: “Diversity Training doesn’t work.” I don’t doubt the good intentions of Bregman and Lucas, but I think it can be said that some of the study data has been extrapolated without interpreting the results comprehensively. So what does the study say? This is the paragraph that sums it up for me:
“There are two caveats about training. First, it does show small positive effects in the largest of workplaces, although diversity councils, diversity managers, and mentoring programs are significantly more effective. Second, optional (not mandatory) training programs and those that focus on cultural awareness (not the threat of the law) can have positive effects.”
In other words, the study says that cross-cultural training does have a measurable impact… In other words, it can work. Now, the study does indicate that mandatory, compliance-based, legal/lawsuit-inspired training rarely, if ever produces the desired results. And in our experience, this kind of legal/compliance-based diversity training can definitely make people defensive, and worsen a situation, which I think is what Bregman and Lucas are recounting in their own experiences. This is why anyone serious about behavioral change should avoid diversity training that is rooted solely in compliance and superficialities. We have found extraordinary benefit for organizations who are serious about good training, provided it is linked to a comprehensive strategy, that it is consistent with senior leadership’s messages and delivered first to the most senior leaders- Training that it is modified appropriately for each participant’s level, role, the overall organizational culture, and that it is designed for skill-building rather than just awareness-building in working with differences. At LCW we call this approach “building cultural agility” or “developing intercultural competence”.
In our reading of the study, the headline “diversity training doesn’t work” is not a great interpretation of the conclusions, and a little misleading in our opinion. We think it is also erroneous in its assertion that glossing over differences, and focusing on commonalities will always lead to better results for an organization. The orientation towards cultural differences communicated in these articles is called minimizationª. Sometimes, it is certainly advantageous to focus on the commonalities between people, particularly if you know nothing about their specific culture(s). However, it’s quite possible to understand how another person is likely to be different from you based on their cultural communities, but not stereotype them based on them (while at the same time not ignoring the commonalities). Understanding these differences doesn’t mean that you have to put someone in a box; it means that you understand the dozens of cultural “boxes” that people have lived in during their lives, and how those experiences have affected what they believe, how they act, and what they value, in reference to yourself. We can follow the golden rule, but following that rule doesn’t work if others don’t want to be treated, or communicated with the same way that we do.
To summarize, cross-cultural training does help develop intercultural competence, and it can have a positive, lasting, and measurable impact, depending on the type of training, its goals, and its methodology.
¹Italicized sentences in parentheses are my own responses.
ª“Minimization” as defined within the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity