Does Diversity Training Work?

diversityAs our workforce becomes increasingly diverse, organizations look to training to increase communication and collaboration and reduce conflict. Diversity training is defined as any program designed to facilitate positive intergroup interaction, reduce prejudice and discrimination, and generally teach dissimilar others how to work together effectively (Bezrukova et al. 2012)

But does diversity training deliver? A recent review suggests that the most common approaches to diversity training might not be effective in accomplishing organizational goals (Bezrukova et al. 2012). In fact, research has demonstrated that diversity training at it’s worst can actually lead to increases in both implicit and explicit expressions of prejudice (Legault et al. 2011). So how can organizations ensure that diversity training does “more good than harm?”

Begin by using evidence-based strategies in diversity training initiatives.

  1. Reduce us vs. them mentality. Perspective taking, or the act of considering the psychological experiences of others,  reduces prejudice by requiring individuals to think about what it would be like to be a member of a different group, which serves to break down in-group versus outgroup barriers and more generally reduces an ‘‘us versus them’’ mentality (Galisnky et al. 2005). Perspective taking fosters empathy within training participants (Madera et al. 2011).  Individuals who are highly empathic are tuned into to the needs of diverse populations and thus internally motivated to respond without prejudice toward them.
  2. Aim high. Ask trainees to set high-quality goals aimed at promoting inclusion within an organization and within themselves.
  3. Consider your audience. Research has shown that some individuals benefit from diversity training more than others. Individuals who are already highly empathic may see less dramatic outcomes, while those who are less emphatic may benefit the most from diversity training interventions (Lindsey et al. 2014).
  4. Tell them what works. Include case studies about organizations where diversity serves as a competitive advantage (see Cirque du Soliel, Google, The Metropolitan Opera, and Cityside Financial Services).

What not to do in diversity training.

  1. Don’t single out groups. Programs that emphasize learning about one particular demographic group at a time sharpens differences between participants and can lead to conflict and negative feelings. Training that focuses on a more general, positive, and inclusive approach may be better received by all participants.
  2. Don’t bore your audience. Diversity training that includes only lecture is less effective than incorporating a variety of instructional techniques, such as role-playing, lectures, experiential exercises, discussion, etc.


Bezrukova, K., Jehn, K. A., & Spell, C. S. (2012). Reviewing diversity training: where we have been and where we should go. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 11, 207–227.

Galisnky, A. D., Ku, G., & Wang, C. S. (2005). Perspective-taking and self-other overlap: Fostering social bonds and facilitating social coordination. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 8, 109–124.

Lindsey, A., King, E., McCausland, T., Jones, K., & Dunleavy, E. (2013). What we know and don’t: Eradicating employment discrimination 50 years after the Civil Rights Act. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 6, 391–413.

Madera, J. M., Neal, J. A., & Dawson, M. (2011). A strategy for diversity training focusing on empathy in the workplace. Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research, 35, 469–487

Questions for discussion. . .

  1. What experience have you had with diversity training? What worked, what didn’t?
  2. How can we make diversity training more effective?


  • This is a tough one. The training organization can do more in leading by example and in action. Instead of having a training geared toward making people work in a diverse group, that same grouping can be done during existing training and learning opportunities. The challenge is to highlight how diversity helps solves problems. How do we demonstrate that, have the participants practice it, and measure it? I don’t think you can. Not with a rational budget. Instead I think a culture that highlights the problems solved by diversity consistently will learn over time. One class room training wouldn’t do it. Unless there is some elaborate way to get a diverse group brought together AND to have them solve a meaningful problem to make a lasting impact.

  • I think this article has some great points in it. I have been part of diversity trainings, both good and bad. The bad ones really stand out because they can reaffirm the points that cause contention in an individual. From the evidence-based strategies mentioned above, I thing number 3. “Consider your audience” is the most important point. A good diversity training reminds us that people take home their grief and worry very often.

  • I love this article it really gave me some great information to think about. This post will be very helpful in my project which involves dealing with diversity and its affects on production. I know it is hard for people to handle diversity but there are great tools in place to offer ways to deal with it…Great Post!

  • I believe one of the greatest barriers in the workplace is understanding diversity, which creates the roadblock in interpersonal communication among coworkers and departments within an organization. When it comes to the implementation of such programs most people shy away from digging deeper, because are afraid of overstepping boundaries which were not set properly by the presenter/organization, which leads to an ineffective program and continuation of stereotypes.
    As the article points out, it is very important to create a structure in which individuals can find common ground, to start the inclusion process, and change the individual perceptions we may have of one another. I believe such inclusion would foster a stronger team atmosphere within an organization, if employees can ask one another questions freely, (in a structured environment) and understand what potentially motivates or defines one another. I believe an end result of such training would be an increase morale and productivity for the organization. This would make diversity training a win-win for everyone involved, while breaking down the barriers that divide us socially.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts! Great that you raised the issue of setting boundaries in training–I think this is a critical practice in any training experience, but particularly important in diversity training.

  • I think personal stories would work. Set them up in a circular seating pattern and let others hear about either the positive or negative experiences they have had based on who they are and the culture they represent. From here I would suggest allowing others to comment on how they would feel in the situation and what they would have done in the situation their selves.

    I’ve had no experience with diversity training but I do know that I would lead something like what I’ve described above. We need to have real raw conversations about this and lets others live a day in the life of someone else who is discriminated against because of who they are.

    • I believe, most diversity training works when it is fully supported from the top down. I agree, “that training that focuses on a more general, positive, and inclusive approach may be better received by all participants.” Support for the training and defined focus are key components to success.

      D. Smith

  • I found this article very interesting. I am of the school of thought that the issues that result in diversity issues are inherent and learned , therefore making these issues hard to eliminate. I wholeheartedly agree and appreciate the article stating that the common diversity training do not work the majority of times. The article then advocates utilizing evidence based training which I agree with. I’m a proponent of a customized diversity training framework based on the client and their experiences.

  • I found this subject particularly interesting since I work for a company who doesn’t offer any diversity training, but yet there is a huge need. After reading your blog, I was able to identify some areas our company just may benefit from a training like this one. But, as the trainer, what are some ways to engage participants who are less empathic about diverse concerns? Is there truly a way to draw them in so they can see that their lack of diversity sensitivity can be causing problems?

  • As Janell said, we were just discussing cultural intelligence in our TRDV445 class, and there was agreement that helping employees to increase their cultural intelligence (CQ) might have a positive effect on diversity training. The focus is on mindfulness – being aware of one’s own cultural styles and those of others – and acceptance of self and others. Fostering empathy and respect for individual differences are also key. I love your #4 idea – Tell them what works. Once companies become aware that leveraging diversity can be overwhelmingly positive, they are more likely to make it a priority and not something that is just given lip service.

  • Thank you for addressing the need to discuss diversity training. I am taking the TRDV445 Executive Coaching coarse. We just read a chapter on cultural perspective and the importance of learning how to leverage cultural differences while promoting growth and development. My peers and I were trying to think about our best options in educating and training individuals and organizations on this subject in hopes to have a positive local and global impact. Looking to people who have gone before us is a great place to start! A company that I used to work for did embrace diversity, but perhaps lacked in the area of training their leaders and or expected them to be on board, without much education or instruction. Therefore, from one position to the next, the idea of embracing diversity got watered down (unfortunately). For some people, they ultimately wanted to work alongside people just like them. That was comfortable for them, and therefore, they gravitated towards people with similar backgrounds and experiences. Doing this however, resulted in an us verses them attitude, spoken of in this article. The question “what can be done to make diversity training more effective?” I feel like we would really gain great insight by asking people who struggle with accepting cultural differences. Meaning, the people who are naturally accepting are most likely to have a positive experience with diversity training. It seems to me that the people who keep their thought process focused on themselves and remain uninterested in learning how and why it is important to consider others perspectives could provide us insight as to how to make diversity training more effective. I look forward to reading the ideas of others. The thoughts and ideas in this article provide a great foundation for us to build upon.

    • Very interesting perspective! We usually focus on “best practices” or those who are top performers as a source of input, but I think that approaching those for whom diversity training wasn’t effective would give an additional view.

  • I really appreciate this post, particularly having just participated as a learner in an “Undoing Racism” training, which definitely had a diversity training end-goal. This particular thought really stands out to me: “Individuals who are already highly empathic may see less dramatic outcomes, while those who are less emphatic may benefit the most from diversity training interventions.” Considering myself an empathic person, I found several of the points being made in the training I attended almost “common sense.” However, during an open discussion another learner was reflecting and it became clear that this material wasn’t common sense to everyone, which was incredibly eye opening (and humbling) for me and caused me to move through the remainder of training differently. I do think diversity training is most effective when there is buy-in from the top on down. If the leaders of an organization can clearly and effectively communicate to employees why this sort of training is valuable, then the impact is that much stronger. Otherwise, we run the risk of employees feeling as though having to attend this sort of training sends the message of “we don’t think you’re open minded or accepting” — making it an uphill battle from the get go.

  • This post is definitely insightful and accurately speaks to some major key components that I pulled from the past couple weeks in my diversity course. Diversity training can be hit or miss and from my experience, they have been mostly a hit. Moments where it failed, I think it had lots to do with employee buy-in and acceptance. Many of my peers felt it was unnecessary as they were “open-minded, considerate, and likely to accept change.” There is some truth to this, but it’s important for leadership to define what specific trainings will address, how they are being implemented, and what work needs to be taken on by employees. When these questions are clearly answered and set into the learning objectives, I feel as if trainers and organizations are more likely to meet success.

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