Cornell research uncovers keys to successful and lasting diversity training

July 28, 2016

By Jay Wrolstad

Interlocking puzzle pieces symbolizing diversityAs our nation continues to grapple with prejudice and discrimination, we see a more urgent and critical call for conversations about race and inequality, in both our communities and our workplaces.

For example, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the police killings of black men in recent years has led to questions about diversity training in police departments around the country.

Obviously, diversity training alone can’t resolve all of these life-and-death issues, but it does have the potential to make a significant positive impact in addressing stereotyping and other biases in a variety of work environments.

The lessons learned can then have ripple effects outside the profession.

New research sheds some light on developing effective diversity training, based on the evaluation of a broad array of programs offered by business organizations and institutions. The study, titled “Diversity Training, A Meta-Analytical Integration of over 40 Years of Research on Diversity Training Evaluation,” shows that the best results are achieved when training is complemented by other diversity initiatives and continues over time.

Awareness and action

Jamie L. Perry, an assistant professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration (SHA), is among the authors of this report.

The most effective types of diversity training programs had two things in common.

Firstly, “They were primarily designed to increase both diversity awareness and skills,” Perry says.

Secondly, “They employ many different instructional methods, such as lectures, exercises, group activities, and discussions, all together,” she says.

“We also found that diversity training was most effective when training was integrated or embedded in a comprehensive diversity curriculum, instead of just offering one class or seminar, as it signaled managerial commitment to diversity.”

The most effective diversity training programs employ many different instructional methods, such as lectures, exercises, group activities, and discussions, all together.Researchers evaluated 260 independent programs, focusing on training context, design, and participants. Models from training literature and psychological theory on diversity were used to compile the findings.

“Psychological theory informs our understanding of diversity training by explaining the effect diversity has on one’s personal attitudes and beliefs,” says Perry. “For example, we draw from contact hypothesis to suggest that not only does frequent contact with people who are different from us facilitate a change in attitudes and beliefs, but also frequent contact that is espoused by management further increases the effectiveness of diversity training programs.”

The findings

Diversity training has the most lasting and stable impact on a trainee’s declarative knowledge about cultural-diversity issues, such as awareness of different cultural perspectives, health needs of ethnic minorities, and stereotypes. Whereas, the impact on skill development and attitudes towards diversity decayed over time.

Frequent contact that is espoused by management further increases the effectiveness of diversity training programs.Institutional support makes a difference. Contact and interaction with a diverse group of people within an organization should be encouraged by those in positions of power.

Integrated training is more effective than training that focuses only on more narrow perspectives, such as legal and compliance issues or cultural differences.

Mandatory training is preferable as it sends a message that the organization is committed to diversity, thus boosting the trainees’ motivation to learn.

Research implications

The authors suggest that their results can inform public and private policy connected to diversity training, which focuses on unresolved social problems such as race and gender relations. Such training can serve as a response to these societal challenges, as well as to local incidents in schools, workplaces, and communities.

“Diversity training can work as an ‘on-the-ground’ approach by providing tools, information, and knowledge to help employees not only understand societal issues but also apply them to day-to-day interactions with those of different races, religions, and ethnic groups,” Perry says.

This study will be published in the Psychological Bulletin. The other authors are Katerina Bezrukova of Santa Clara University, Chester S. Spell of Rutgers University, and Etty Jehn of the Melbourne Business School in Victoria, Australia.

Jamie Perry

One Comment

  1. Victor B. Younger September 13, 2016 at 4:09 pm - Reply

    The Cornell College of Business diversity taskforce embraces the idea that embedding diversity, engagement and inclusion workshops across all disciplines is the most successful method for changing culture. Jamie, great article!

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