by John Sarno

A major 2006 study of 31 years of data from 830 American companies found that most diversity training efforts are not only ineffective but counterproductive. They focus too much time on compliance and not enough time on organizational culture and change and as a result show little effect in increasing the number of women and minorities in managerial positions.

This study, published in the American Sociological Review, found that the kind of diversity training exercises offered at most firms — such as narratives about interpersonal conflict that are sometimes featured in “sensitivity training” and often upset people — only serve to alienate the very people companies are trying to reach. They cause workers to actively resist change and downplay the importance of organizational structure in embracing, or resisting, long-term change.

Such exercises were followed by a 7.5-percent overall drop in the number of women in management. The number of black female managers fell by 10 percent, and the number of black men in top positions fell by 12 percent. Similar effects were seen for Latinos and Asians. This despite the fact that American companies spend up to $300 million annually on diversity training.

Several experts offered two reasons for this: The first is that businesses are responding rationally to the legal environment. Supreme Court rulings have held that companies with mandatory diversity training are in a stronger position if they face a discrimination lawsuit. But if companies are merely covering their bases it is obvious they do not care whether the training works. It can hardly be a surprise, then, that training could be counterproductive.

A second reason is that many companies, with the implicit cooperation of diversity trainers, find it easier to offer exercises that simply serve public relations goals, rather than to embrace real change.

I have trained thousands of supervisors at hundreds of companies since 1995 and I generally concur with the study’s findings. For the most part, companies see diversity as a legal compliance issue, not as a meaningful opportunity to create a more productive working environment. Our research indicates that because of this employers get sued regardless of training.

In response, the Employers Association of New Jersey has developed training that gets at the root causes of conflict and treats diversity as a corporate value, rather than as a legal necessity. This training is based on five widely surveyed core values — honesty, integrity, caring for others, approachability, and active listening. The focus stays on the supervisor’s role in implementing these values in practical concrete ways. Ultimately, diversity is not viewed cynically as a shield to legal liability, but as a form of leadership.

This type of value-based training is really not for everyone. By and large, it is for employers that already get it.

John Sarno is a labor lawyer and president of the Employers Association of New Jersey, the Livingston-based nonprofit association that helps employers make better employment decisions.

Raised in Elmwood Park, he graduated with a degree in psychology from Ramapo College in 1977 and earned a master’s in counseling and education, as well as a law degree, from Seton Hall.

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