Diversity training – what a waste of time

A major financial company, with revenues of $14bn(£7bn) worldwide, did some interesting diversity training for its London office last year – it took the diversity trainingbudget, and invited people to watch the England versus Trinidad & Tobago football match, with some spicy chicken thrown in.

They, like many others, treat much of this diversity trainingstuff as a joke. And who can blame them? No-one when you consider the diversity of job titles created by diversity.

At a recent conference on the subject, there was a long list of them, including heads of cohesion and faith, heads of inclusion, and heads of equality. Although few would argue that most anti-discrimination laws are worthwhile, there is also a sensible debate to be had about the crude training that attempts to change behaviour.

Louise Pendry, a lecturer at Exeter University, claims that there’s no evaluative evidence showing that these programmes work. Even worse, many may do more harm than good.

Tracie Stewart, a professor at Georgia University, identified ‘backlash’or ‘victim blame’after some courses, where the learners harbour resentment against other minority groups for the way they are made to feel. Rather than bringing people together, it may be reinforcing differences. Ethnic minorities may become over-sensitive, and doing as the Americans have done, policing it through legal cases, is hardly sensible. The social case may be strong, but the business case is weak.

Frank Dobbin, an organisational and development sociologist at Harvard University, conducted the first major, systematic study of diversity programmes across 708 private sector companies, using employment data and surveys on employment practices. His research, published in the American Sociological Review in September 2006, said that:”Practices that target managerial bias through… diversity training, shows virtually no effect.”

Dobbin said: “For the past 40 years, companies have tried to increase diversity, spending millions of dollars a year on any number of programmes without actually stopping to determine whether or not their efforts have been worth it. Certainly in the case of diversity training, the answer is no.”

Dobbin’s research is a very thorough piece of work, and well worth reading, which is why it’s likely to be comprehensively ignored -especially by those in the diversity industry who should read it.

The report adds: “Research to date suggests that training often generates a backlash.”

Many other studies show that diversity training has activated, rather than reduced diversity. Kidder et al 2004; Rynes and Rosen 1995; Sidanias et al 2001; Naff and Kellough 2003; Benedict et al 1998; and Nelson et al 1996, are all mentionedin Dobbin’s report.

Could this be a sign that far from taking a strategic role in businesses, training is literally painting itself into the dark corner of compliance training-of which diversity training is a prime example -where it will be increasingly ignored?

The infamous 2005 article in US business magazine Fast Company – ‘Why We Hate HR’ – predicted this, and claimed that training departments will “ghettoize themselves literally to the brink of obsolescence”.

Millions of sensible people are being churned and batched through patronising, often accusatory, compliance-like courses that have no real behavioural impact. Even if compliance were to add value to businesses, most of these courses are counterproductive, being largely knowledge-based. In most, you will literally lose the will to live. I have only seen one exception to this, which were the courses produced for technology company Apple.

Senior managers know that compliance-type training is all a big game and that it has no real business impact. It’s merely a protective immunising jab so that people can point towards some spurious report showing that ‘x’ employees completed course ‘y’.

This is all about attendance, not attainment -literally ticks in boxes. In fact, I’d argue that the time and resources taken to plan, design, deliver and track these courses outweigh any possible business benefits. In practice, this huge effort is likely to lower overall performance.

Learning and HR professionals often complain about not getting a seat at the top table. We never will if we willingly define ourselves as delivering dull compliance programmes that have nothing to do with personal development, and everything to do with the organisation protecting itself from its employees.

The clark file

If you were minister for training and L&D, what one initiative would you implement?

Apply Occam’s Razor: the minimum number of entities to achieve a given goal. This would mean fewer agencies, fewer qualifications, fewer courses, more automation through technology, and less duplication of effort. It would also involve attacking the idea that every teacher and trainer has to plan, design and deliver courses. This is stupid duplication on an unimaginable scale.

What professional book has made the biggest impact on you?

Philosophical Investigations, by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

What book are you reading now?

The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright.

What is the biggest challenge facing training and L&D professionals?

Technology – it’s taking over their traditional patch and resistance is useless.

What drives you nuts?

Neuro-linguistic programming, life coaches and Nigella Lawson – I hate her smugness.

How do you like to travel?

In style.


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