NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 12, 2010

If you work at a large company, and especially if you manage other people, chances are you've gone through diversity training.  The vast majority of the Fortune 500 and, by some estimates, the majority of American employers offer diversity training programs for their employees.  Many make such training mandatory.  The amount of money spent on it in the United States runs into the billions, Drake Bennett, a staff writer for the Boston Globe.   

The courses vary widely, in content and duration and method and philosophy: 

  • Some are short videos followed by structured discussions, some are multiday retreats, some are informational, teaching participants about their "diversity circle" and the difference between a generalization and a stereotype, others focus on role-playing.
  • But they all promise to help people better navigate the fault lines of race, gender, culture, class and sexual orientation that can divide co-workers and unsettle offices.  

Now a few social scientists are taking a hard look at these programs, and, so far, what they're finding is that there's little evidence that diversity training works, says Bennett: 

  • A paper published last year by psychologist Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School and Yale University political scientist Donald Green comprehensively surveyed the literature on prejudice reduction measures and found no empirical support for the idea that diversity training programs change attitudes or behavior.
  • Similarly, a 2008 literature review paper by Carol Kulik of the University of South Australia and Loriann Roberson of Columbia University found that, on the question of changing behavior, there were few trustworthy studies -- and decidedly mixed results among those.
  • And research by a team of sociologists on more than 800 companies over three decades has found that the best diversity training programs make little difference in who gets hired and promoted, and many programs actually decrease the number of women and minorities in management.  

"Even with best practices, you're not going to get much of an effect," says Frank Dobbin, a Harvard University sociology professor on the research team.  "It doesn't change what happens at work." 


Drake Bennett,"Who's still biased?" Dallas Morning News, April 11, 2010.  

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