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Diversity Boston

Training in trouble

Companies question programs’ value

(Anthony Russo for The Boston Globe)
By Ann Carrns
Globe Correspondent / December 5, 2010

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Corporate diversity training has taken a beating in recent years.

First, research surfaced that suggests that it doesn’t help much. Then, other studies began questioning whether it actually hurts. And during the recession, some employers began abandoning it altogether.

Companies started programs to increase tolerance in the workplace and protect themselves against discrimination lawsuits decades ago. Today, most US corporations offer diversity training — from videos and Web seminars to workshops and multiday retreats — with spending on such efforts totaling in the billions. Now, with budgets tight and the debate over the effectiveness of diversity training continuing, companies are reevaluating whether it’s needed and if so, how to do it right.

Overall, 68 percent of organizations polled this year said they had practices such as diversity training and mentoring, down from 76 percent in 2005, according to an October survey of about 400 employers by the Alexandria, Va.-based Society of Human Resource Management.

Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion initiatives at the HR organization, said that employers looking to cut costs in lean times may eliminate diversity efforts as a short-term fix because such efforts can offer quick savings. But ultimately, Peterson said companies that ignore diversity likely will be at a competitive disadvantage. Indeed, the study found 84 percent of the companies that have maintained diversity programs said their efforts are at least “somewhat’’ effective, citing benefits such as a better public image, lower employee turnover, and improved profitability.

“Longer term,’’ Peterson said, “it’s a strategic imperative.’’

At the same time, other research suggests current training programs are significantly lacking.

For instance, a study of about three decades of data from more than 800 midsize and large US companies that was published in the American Sociological Review found diversity training has modest effects, especially at large companies. The study, published in 2006 and expanded in 2007 in Contexts, an affiliated magazine, found that diversity training actually was associated with a small drop in the likelihood that some minorities would become managers — perhaps, the authors note, because training may foster backlash.

Diversity training is most likely to be helpful when it is voluntary, emphasizes cultural awareness, and avoids heavy legal content, the research concluded. But the main finding is that other diversity efforts are much more effective. Mentoring programs and task forces with responsibility for diversity, for instance, show “positive and more consistently significant’’ results for both women and minorities.

“The overall story is that training isn’t doing very much,’’ said Frank Dobbin, a Harvard University sociologist and one of the study’s authors.

Psychologist Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton University and Yale University political scientist Donald Green surveyed hundreds of prejudice-reduction studies in the 2009 Annual Review of Psychology, finding that some types of training even appear to backfire. For example, a 2000 study showed that business students shown a diversity training video urging them to suppress negative attitudes about the elderly actually gave a more negative review of older job applicants than a group that didn’t get the instructions.

The review found that “cooperative learning’’ in which participants teach and learn from each other, is among the most promising methods. But overall, it concluded that there is no way to know what type of diversity training is truly effective because so little well-designed field research exists. The “impact of diversity training remains largely unknown,’’ the report said.

Paluck said that doesn’t mean that companies should abandon diversity training: Instead, they should evaluate how successful a program is — beyond assessment forms filled out by applicants. “They should be saying, ‘We don’t have the time or money to waste on programs that are ineffective, or worse, harmful,’ ’’ she said.

The focus of diversity training is evolving, consultants say, away from a strictly legal approach — what not to do or say to avoid being sued — toward emphasizing how helping employees better understand differences can advance a firm’s business strategy. Companies are broadening their definition of diversity, too, in order to include not just women and racial minorities but also gays and lesbians, older and younger workers, parents, and even different personality types.

Companies also are trying new training formats to increase accessibility. Microsoft Corp., for instance, combines instructor-led training with a variety of electronic formats, including “on-demand’’ online learning sessions to be able to tailor programs to a global workforce. Requirements and content vary, depending on a particular business unit’s needs, said Monica Diaz, the company’s global diversity and inclusion director.

Computer programs allow employees to choose from offerings most relevant to their situation, such as ones offering in-depth information about doing business in China. Some components of the training might be conducted via instant messaging; others include video, in which a workplace situation is portrayed and the user selects the most appropriate response.

“We continue to lead in a global economy, and to engage customers, we definitely have to look at a more comprehensive curriculum of diversity and inclusion offerings,’’ Diaz said.

Training also increasingly focuses on more subtle forms of discrimination that can occur in the workplace and on tools for addressing them. Some programs include awareness of “micro-inequities,’’ or small slights — managers interrupting female employees but not male ones, for instance.

“We all have biases,’’ said Dani Monroe of Center Focus International, a diversity consulting firm in Brookline that offers a daylong course that uses a mock interview process to help managers understand what influences they may need to take into account when evaluating potential hires. “The trick is to understand how they influence our decisions.’’

At Novartis Research, the Cambridge-based research arm of pharmaceutical company Novartis AG, workers choose from a variety of professional development courses, including some on diversity and inclusion.

Although voluntary, the sessions are well attended, said Amir Johnson, director of diversity, inclusion, and health policy at Novartis Research, which has about 6,000 employees globally and 1,600 locally.

“People here are naturally curious,’’ Johnson said, “and want to grow intellectually and professionally.’’

Other companies prefer to make training mandatory. Sun Life Financial has its US headquarters in Wellesley, more than 14,000 workers globally, and about 2,000 in Massachusetts.

It requires all of them to take 90 minutes of training in workplace diversity awareness and respect. The sessions include, for example, role-playing exercises that aim to help employees handle uncomfortable situations in the workplace.

“We want everyone to be at the same level of understanding about what the company’s stance is,’’ said Tasha Morris, who oversees the company’s diversity programs, which include some voluntary lectures that address issues in diversity and inclusion, such as how to better manage “Generation Y’’ employees.