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Diversity Training for the Workplace: How to Make it Effective

written by: Marjory Pilley•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 5/25/2011

Diversity training for the workplace is being scrutinized. Does it really achieve its objectives? Follow these tips for implementing a successful program that have been gleaned from recent studies and experts.

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    The Debate over Effectiveness

    Diversity training helps create a respectful workplace. Diversity training has been around for a number of years. Its beginnings are rooted in the Civil Rights movement. Later, the focus was broadened to include women's issues. Today, training embraces a variety of differences among employees including age, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, ethnicity and receipt of public assistance. A variety of methods, such as case studies and role play, are used to recognize and address biases.

    Since it has been around for awhile, there is an ongoing debate regarding the effectiveness of diversity training for the workplace. A March 2010 article on the Boston Globe's website references studies that show little impact in the composition of management as a result of diversity training. The conclusion: diversity training does not work. Others have a different opinion and point to positive outcomes when best practices are used. Besides, in addition to improving the representation of minority groups in management, diversity training does have other objectives. Any work group today is likely comprised of people from a variety of backgrounds. A respectful environment with high morale and the ability to successfully resolve conflicts is necessary to achieve most business objectives.

    When establishing a diversity training program, take into consideration the following best practices:

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    Developing the Training

    Large companies are inclined to retain in-house experts responsible for this training and other diversity-related initiatives. Smaller companies often hire outside consultants to assist with this effort or embark in a process themselves. Regardless, the responsible parties for diversity training in the workplace should keep these points in mind:

    • Identify the goal of the training. Is it prompted by a problem or legal mandate that requires a focused message? Or, is the purpose proactive in nature requiring more general objectives such as tolerance and working effectively together?
    • Training should not assess blame or make the participants feel guilty. If this approach is followed, employees are more likely to become defensive and tune out the real message. Some experts feel that extensive discussions about laws and regulations can dilute the message as well.
    • Focus broadly on working together for the common good. Routing out differences, unless a particular need has been identified, may result in unnecessary divisiveness.
    • Spend as much time focusing on similarities as differences. A variety of techniques and exercises have been used over the years to show participants their unconscious biases. This may have a place in some training programs. Equally important are steps to bring the group back together based upon similarities.
    • Make a business case for the training. The purpose of the training may be to improve productivity, reduce turnover, increase promotion of minorities or reduce claims of discrimination and harassment. In any event, everyone should walk away with the understanding that differences in perspectives are needed for new and creative solutions and the company as a whole benefits from diversity.
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    Providing the Training

    Even with an expertly planned program, training can go awry without the proper environment. Because of the emotional nature of these issues, possible outcomes are hard to anticipate. Some tips for a positive outcome of diversity training in the workplace include:

    • Use a facilitator experienced in diversity training. Some skills and attributes that are helpful include knowledge of laws, ability to handle conflict resolution, resistance and group dynamics, self-understanding of prejudices and training in the area of diversity. Don't assume that a Senior Manager or corporate trainer is schooled in this area.
    • Keep track of issues for follow-up and get back to participants promptly. Not only do these actions demonstrate a commitment to the initiative, but it will likely address important issues on the minds of the employees. A good facilitator knows it is more important to provide an accurate response at a later date, than to provide an off-the-cuff response to move the discussion along.
    • Participants must feel "safe" to participate. True growth and problem-solving will not occur if the participants feel judged or unable to express opinions. A good facilitator will establish ground rules and establish mechanisms for productive communication.
    • Consider making proactive training optional. Recent studies indicate that resentment builds when training is mandatory. Structure the training so it is useful and fun and does not lead to catch-up work so employees are incented to participate.

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    Management's Role

    Diverse backgrounds in the workplace brings creativity and new ideas. An effective diversity training program requires support from all levels of management. Simply paying lip-service to the idea and footing the bill for training is not enough. If a Senior Manager is responsible for the initiative, then it will be seen as important and employees will pay attention. Other actions by management should include:

    • Participation in training. Employees won't feel compelled to participate if managers don't find the time to participate.
    • Implementation of appropriate changes identified in the training. For example, flex-time may be necessary to allow observance of religious holidays or accommodations may be needed for a mom that wants to breast-feed their child.
    • Assessment of their own biases as it relates to management duties. Biases may come into play for interviews, reviews, promotions as well as for special assignments and participation in programs.

    Diversity training for the workplace will continue. However, objectives will go unmet if they are simply addressed with a one-time awareness program. The principles need to be incorporated into a company's culture. Follow-up training may be necessary. Most importantly, training should be part of a well-rounded diversity initiative that includes additional ideas for promoting diversity in the workplace.


    Bennett, Drake. "Who's still biased? - The Boston Globe." N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2010.

    Dessler, Gary. Human Resources Management (12th Edition). 12 ed. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2010. Print.

    Green, Kelly, Mayra Lopez, Allen Wysocki, and Karl Kepner. "HR022/HR022: Diversity in the Workplace: Benefits, Challenges, and the Required Managerial Tools ." EDIS - Electronic Data Information Source - UF/IFAS Extension. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2010.

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