Perversity Training

Mandatory diversity training can feel pointless, but does it actually reduce workplace diversity?

In my experience, which I’ve been perfectly willing to generalize, mandatory workplace sensitivity training is a scam and a waste of time. The people who don’t need it are checking their watches, the people who do need it are fuming and not listening, and the trainers are speaking to the employees as if they were dull-witted third graders. It hadn’t occurred to me, however, that it would have perverse unintended consequences.

Shankar Vedantam writes (in his typically informative column on social- and behavioral-science research findings) that

A comprehensive review of 31 years of data from 830 mid-size to large U.S. workplaces found that the kind of diversity training exercises offered at most firms were followed by a 7.5 percent drop in the number of women in management. The number of black, female managers fell by 10 percent, and the number of black men in top positions fell by 12 percent. Similar effects were seen for Latinos and Asians.

The analysis did not find that all diversity training is useless. Rather, it showed that mandatory programs — often undertaken mainly with an eye to avoiding liability in discrimination lawsuits — were the problem. When diversity training is voluntary and undertaken to advance a company’s business goals, it was associated with increased diversity in management.

I’ve felt the same way about mandatory sexual-harassment training, but I don’t find any studies on whether it’s followed by increased sexual harassment.