Does Diversity Training Work?

Jeanne Hites Anderson

Diversity training began in the 1950s or even earlier in US corporations, but after all this time, we are still not where we should be in terms of equity and inclusion. Repeated incidents of racial, ethnic and gender discrimination and violence have led to many articles claiming that diversity training has failed.

My first encounter with diversity training was in the 80s. I got on an elevator at work and all the men looked like schoolboys that had just been reprimanded. They were silent instead of making their usual jovial comments. They carefully avoided my eyes and kept their hands in their pockets.

Uh-oh, I thought. These guys were walking on eggshells while returning to their offices after company mandated diversity training. After I attended the training session, I found some reasons for their reactions. The training:

  • left the men feeling shamed
  • it was mandatory for all management-level employees
  • addressed laws covering employment, civil rights, abortion, sexual harassment, disability discrimination.

These three things can cause more problems than they solve, according to Joanne Lipman (2018).

The diversity training may have raised awareness, but it did not produce trainee intentions, skills and a sense of self-efficacy for coping with diversity (Combs & Luthans, 2007). There were no new inclusionary policies created or rewards given to trainees for implementing diversity and equity initiatives in their work groups. Nor were there changes leading to systemic equity and inclusion such as long-term evaluation of organizational changes like increased diversity of the workforce or decreased discrimination claims. In other words, it appeared that diversity was not really strategic to the organization. It was merely a “check-off-box” obligation.

Is it fair to say that diversity training has failed (Dobbin & Kalev, 2018)? I think NO. A meta-analysis of 260 studies over 40 years show that diversity training CAN work (Bezrukova, Spell, Perry & Jehn, 2016). In order for diversity, equity and inclusion training to work:

  • Training needs to be a part of a wider change program.
  • Longer training programs work better than those offered over a short timeline.
  • The training design includes trainees setting their own goals or action plan (Madera, King, & Hebl, 2013).
  • Training design also includes trainees taking perspectives of diverse others (Lindsey, King, Hebl, & Levine, 2015).

What other strategies help diversity equity and inclusion training to succeed?


Bezrukova, K., Spell, C., Perry, J., & Jehn, K. (2016). A meta-analytical integration of over 40 years of research on diversity training evaluation. Psychological Bulletin, 142(11), 1227–.

Combs, G., & Luthans, F. (2007). Diversity training: Analysis of the impact of self‐efficacy. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 18(1), 91–120.

Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2018). Why doesn’t diversity training work? The challenge for industry and academia. Anthropology Now, 10(2), 48-55.

Lindsey, A., King, E., Hebl, M. & Levine, N. (2015). The Impact of Method, Motivation, and Empathy on Diversity Training Effectiveness. Journal of Business and Psychology30,605–617

Lipman, J. (2018). That’s what she said: What men need to know (and women need to tell them) about working together. New York, NY:William Morrow.

Madera, J.M., King, E.B. & Hebl, M.R. (2013). Enhancing the Effects of Sexual Orientation Diversity Training: The Effects of Setting Goals and Training Mentors on Attitudes and Behaviors. Journal of Business and Psychology 28,79–91.

Rynes, S., & Rosen, B. (1995). A field survey of factors affecting the adoption and perceived success of diversity training. Personnel Psychology, 48(2), 247-270.

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