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Diversity Training Is Not the Answer
Leaders would be better served to focus on recruiting, compensation and other related facets of talent management rather than diversity training.

Adam Galinsky, Jennifer Olayon and Maurice Schweitzer

For decades, government and corporate initiatives have targeted the lack of diversity and equality in the workplace.

Century-old companies, Internet juggernauts and emerging startups are creating mission statements and policies geared toward increasing the number of women and underrepresented minorities selected, retained and promoted. 

On the surface, this seems like a straightforward problem to solve. A diverse workplace is not only more representative and fair but also more productive and efficient. 

Diversity has been linked with greater creative thinking at the individual level, better information-sharing at the group level, and faster economic growth at the societal level.

But decades of corporate policies and initiatives to promote diversity haven’t done much. According to 2015 data from Catalyst and CNN Money, only 1 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are black and only 4 percent are women. 

And it’s not just at the CEO level. Women make up only 19 percent of the corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies. Economically, women earn only 78 percent of what men earn, and black and Hispanic people make less than 75 percent of the median income of white people. After decades of work, there has been remarkably little progress in increasing diversity, especially in the upper echelons of organizations. 

Part of the problem is the programs many companies have instituted simply don’t work. To promote diversity, many firms have introduced diversity training. Their goal is to make every employee, especially white men, aware of their subtle and often unconscious biases that prevent equal opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities.  

But there is one fundamental problem with diversity training programs: They often fail to increase diversity and opportunity. In a study of 708 private sector organizations from 1971 to 2002, researchers found that diversity training programs had no effect on increasing the number of women in management. They can actually decrease the number of black women in management.

Cast a Critical Recruiting Eye 

Diversity training programs don’t seem to work, but some diversity programs do — particularly when their ultimate goal is cultural change. To understand the challenge of promoting diversity, let’s start with the first stage in the organizational pipeline: recruitment. 

One of the first access points for potential applicants is the recruiting advertisement. This stage is more critical 
than often recognized because the language in recruiting documents affects application rates for women and unrepresented minorities. 

For example, masculine language in job advertisements such as “dominant” or “competitive” lowers the job’s appeal for women, not because women feel they lack relevant skills but because they feel they won’t fit in. Organizations need to evaluate recruiting documents for language that might send the wrong message. 

Bias also seeps into the selection stage of recruitment. Women and minorities are often evaluated differently from their white male counterparts. 

In a study of entrepreneurial pitches published in 2014, researchers found that — holding the content of the pitch constant — 68 percent of investors funded male entrepreneurs, but only 32 percent funded female entrepreneurs. 

Research also has proven that candidates’ names on résumés affect recruitment. Candidates with stereotypically white names like Emily or Brendan often receive more callback interviews than identical résumés belonging to candidates with stereotypically black names like Lakisha or Jamal. 

One solution is to blind ourselves to gender and racial cues altogether, as symphony orchestras have done. 

In the U.S., aspiring orchestra members now audition behind a screen. These blind auditions have been credited with increasing the likelihood of selecting female musicians as much as 50 percent. To ensure judges are truly blind to any gender cues, applicants are also required to remove their shoes before they audition. By removing the click of high heels, the judges cannot distinguish male from female musicians. 

Blind procedures also can reduce “stereotype threat.” In many domains, gendered or racial environmental triggers can cause women and minorities to believe they don’t have what it takes to succeed. 

For example, members of minority groups perform worse on standardized tests when race and gender are recorded at the beginning of the test. Some organizations in charge of standardized testing such as Educational Testing Service, which produces the SAT and GRE, are changing their procedures to record this information at the end of the test.

Another way to promote objectivity is to focus on data rather than on subjective measures such as likability or other interpersonal factors. For example, evaluating candidates based on sales or the amount of revenue they generate can diminish the influence of stereotypes on evaluations. 

Sometimes looking only at the numbers isn’t enough, however. Evaluators can unconsciously change evaluation criteria in ways that preferentially benefit one group over another. 

In the study “Stereotype Vulnerability Research Plan,” researchers had people evaluate two candidates, one male and one female, for a top-management position. Each candidate was superior on one criterion: one had more experience and the other had more education. The researchers manipulated whether the female candidate was the one with more experience or the one with more education. 

Evaluators overwhelmingly preferred the male applicant. When the man had more education, they said they made their decision based on which candidate had more education. When the female candidate had more education, they still picked the male candidate; this time defending their selection by declaring that experience was the more important criterion. 

Essentially, evaluators selected the candidate first, and then shifted the criterion they used to support that candidate. To prevent this bias, force evaluators to articulate the criteria they believe are most important — such as education or experience — before they see any applicant information. When researchers did this, gender bias disappeared. 

Keep an Eye Out

Creating accountability in recruiting processes can reduce the pay gap for women and minorities as well. When hiring and salary decisions are monitored and publicly reported, disparities in salary rates diminish. 

For example, in 2010 the Australian Securities Exchange  required that ASX-listed companies publicly report processes for nominating and selecting board members. Following this change, the percentage of female directors increased to 18 percent in 2014 from 8 percent in 2008.

Transparency procedures designed to monitor the recruitment, pay and promotion of minority groups also can lead to higher productivity and workforce innovation, while lowering employee turnover. Conduct regular reviews of hiring and promotion criteria to diminish disparate outcomes.

Mentoring programs also can increase promotion rates for women and minorities. These programs only succeed, however, when they engage senior leadership. Mentoring connections create social bonds and trust, and they give mentees access to information and opportunities they might otherwise miss. 

Integrating these ideas, here are six ways to promote organizational diversity: 

  1. Analyze recruiting ads for gendered characteristics and exclusionary language. 
  2. Establish recruiting and promotion criteria before meeting potential candidates. 
  3. Use objective criteria and remove identifying features of the candidates when making hiring and promotion decisions.
  4. Build accountability by having recruiting and promotion committees explain their processes and decisions.
  5. Be transparent by reporting hiring, compensation and promotion rates by demographics groups.
  6. Create inclusive mentoring programs that involve senior managers.

Future research is necessary to empirically explore the effectiveness of other routes to increase diversity. 
For example, the past decade has seen an increase in the number of employee resource groups, or ERGs, also known as affinity groups, employee-led and voluntary associations based on a shared characteristic or life experience such as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status. Empirical research is needed to test whether these groups are effective in increasing the recruitment, retention and promotion of underrepresented members in organizations. 
Any change can have a cascading effect. For example, the proportion of women in top management increases the probability that other women will be promoted to management positions. 

So, we have to keep at it. If we do, we put ourselves on the path to creating not only a diverse workplace but also a more equitable and successful one.
Adam Galinsky is Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business and Chair of the Management Division at Columbia University and co-author of “Friend & Foe.” Jennifer Olayon is a consultant for the Council of Urban Professionals. Maurice Schweitzer is the Cecilia Yen Koo Professor of Operations, Information, and Decisions at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “Friend & Foe.” To comment, email editor@diversity-executive.com.
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