Why businesses need to rethink diversity training


It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, according to new research from Rice

Within the past couple of years, Starbucks and Sephora have come under fire for racial insensitivity. They responded to the criticism and negative publicity by closing their stores for companywide diversity training.

But does this type of training actually work? The short answer is yes, it can, but new research from Rice finds that factors such as personality type and personal circumstances must be considered when determining what type of training to offer or how the training should be administered.

"The question of ‘Does diversity training work’’ sets up a false dilemma,” said Eden King , an associate professor of psychological sciences at Rice and one of the authors of "Examining Why and for Whom Reflection Diversity Training Works,” which appeared in a recent edition of Personnel Assessment and Decisions.

"Asking this question is setting up whether something works or doesn’t, but diversity training isn’t an either/or issue - there are many shades of gray and factors that must be considered,” King continued. "By saying, ’Here’s a one-hour session that will solve everything for everyone,’ companies are really oversimplifying a complex topic, and as a result, some people stop listening altogether - and that’s the last thing you want to have happen.”

The researchers conducted the study by evaluating 246 U.S. residents working at least 30 hours per week. A wide array of occupations were represented.

Some participants completed an exercise in which they reflected on a time they could have behaved differently with regard to diversity-related issues. Pro-diversity attitudes were self-reported by participants and measured on a scale of 1-10, from "strongly disagreeing” with a statement about diversity to "strongly agreeing.” The researchers evaluated whether the participants, upon reflection, were motivated to change their past behavior.

The researchers did find some evidence that racial sensitivity and other diversity-related issues can be improved through training, but King noted that the issue is not as simple as determining if training works - you must also understand why and for whom it is effective.

"Previous work in this area shows that personality can play a role in whether diversity training is impactful,” King said. "For example, individuals who tend to see the world as more hierarchical - these people are high in something called ’social dominance orientation,’ which is closely associated with prejudice - are usually reluctant to take this type of training seriously, while individuals on the other end of the spectrum took it seriously and seemed to benefit from it.”

Interestingly, the new study’s reflection activity was effective for participants high in social dominance orientation, King said. Most of these individuals looked back on their previous behavior and said they would do things differently.

King said future study of diversity training should focus on how it can be tailored to reach individuals with different personality types and personal circumstances. She concluded, "Even brief diversity interventions can have positive effects, but that depends on the features of the particular intervention, outcome and individual."

Alex Lindsey of the University of Memphis was the lead author of the study. Brittney Amber of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Afra Ahmad of George Mason University were co-authors.