Value Of Diversity Training Tough To Measure

Guests

Elizabeth Levy Paluck, assistant professor of psychology at Princeton University
Eva Young, president of Eva Young and Associates

Diversity training is supposed to raise cultural awareness and increase inclusiveness in the work place. But many experts say that there is no conclusive evidence that it does either. Tell us: If you've gone through diversity training, did it make a difference?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

If you work at a large company, you probably sat through hours of diversity training. You might have watched a video and talked about it in a group, maybe role-playing, maybe a multi-day retreat.

The goal is to raise cultural awareness, reduce tensions and increase diversity in the workplace. Many companies instituted these programs as long as 20 or 25 years ago. It's now a multi-billion-dollar business, but an article by Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe cites new research that finds no way to show that diversity training helps and even some to suggest it may be counterproductive.

So if you've gone through diversity training, did it make a difference? How? Tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later this hour, "The Last Train from Hiroshima" got rave reviews. Author Charles Pellegrino did interviews, including one on this program. Now the book's been withdrawn by the publisher amid questions about accuracy.

But first, Elizabeth Levy Paluck joins us from a studio at Princeton University, where she's an assistant professor of psychology, and she published a paper last year that studied diversity training. Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor ELIZABETH LEVY PALUCK (Princeton University): Hi, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And how do you measure whether diversity training succeeds or not?

Prof. PALUCK: Well, you know, one point that I made in this paper was up until this point, we haven't done such a good job of measuring whether diversity training is achieving its goals.

One of the problems is, is that there are many different types of diversity management programs, and so they have different goals, and they target different groups, and so in the end what I came to conclude was that we know much more about the diagnosis of the problem than we do about the treatment.

CONAN: Much about the description and not about the prescription.

Prof. PALUCK: That's right. So for academics like me, we know a lot about discrimination in the workforce, a lot about inequality and segregation into different jobs. However, that hasn't really translated into what to do about it, and I think one of the more interesting suggestions that's come out of the work on this is that, you know, maybe understanding the causes and understanding the treatment are actually two different things.

So for example, understanding the causes of malaria and understanding the treatment for malaria are two very different things.

CONAN: Well, one would think, if some companies have done diversity training for 20 or 25 years, that their hiring ought to reflect that.

Prof. PALUCK: Well, you know, an interesting thing is that, you know, diversity training often doesn't have too much to do with hiring itself, and so, you know, hiring practices often are affected much more so by structural solutions that companies will implement, so things like appointing special staff members and committees to rethink hiring and promotion structures or assigning responsibility for progress in terms of diversity to some of its existing employees rather than bringing people in for a day or less to talk about discrimination and bias and prejudice, for example.

CONAN: Well, is what you're suggesting that in fact there's no research to prove that diversity does work?

Prof. PALUCK: In fact, that is what I'm suggesting, and particularly when it comes to what we think most often of when we think about diversity training, and those are these day or less programs.

One very interesting study that came out recently assessed hundreds of different workplaces and specifically the representation of women and minorities in managerial positions, and taking a look at those companies, they found that actually having a diversity training program sometimes even decreases the odds that you will have women and minorities in your ranks of managers, but actually increasing simple structural responsibilities, so as I said, appointing someone in your workplace as a diversity manager, someone who monitors the progress of these things, is actually much more effective.

CONAN: Someone who's held accountable and can hold other people accountable.

Prof. PALUCK: That's correct, exactly.

CONAN: And when you're suggesting that in fact there's an element of - where, you know, it might be counterproductive, which you were talking about just a moment ago...

Prof. PALUCK: Yes.

CONAN: ...does that have to do with whether the programs are voluntary or mandatory?

Prof. PALUCK: Absolutely. So as I said, we don't know all that much about how these programs are working, and a large part of that is due to simply the way that they've been studied, but one thing that does seem to emerge from the evidence so far is that when you have a mandatory training versus something that's voluntary, this is likely to provoke a backlash.

Some of this is anecdotal evidence in terms of people feeling very resentful, but also in terms of what we see by way of representation in your actual workforce and the hiring.

Another thing that sometimes causes this backlash is very legalistic language in these diversity trainings.

CONAN: In other words, well, some of these programs emerge as the result of agreement by a company that, because of its past sins in hiring, for example, it will institute diversity training.

Prof. PALUCK: That's right, and so the suggestion of this research is if that is the case, that probably shouldn't be the theme of the day. In other words, you might want to be approaching this topic from another angle than by suggesting to people that another lawsuit is lurking around the corner.

CONAN: And indeed, there has been some suggestions, not from companies, but that some companies do this just to - in an effort to preclude future lawsuits. They're able to say, well, look, we've got a diversity training program.

Prof. PALUCK: That's right, and you know, I think people who are working at that firm can see right through that, and I've noted this with a lot of diversity trainers as well, one of whom when I interviewed her said, you know, typically the companies I work with, they're of two types; there are those who see the light, and then there are those who feel the heat.

CONAN: Well, we have one of those here with us today. Eva Young is president of Eva Young and Associates, a firm that orchestrates diversity training sessions, and she's here with us in Studio 3A. Thank you very much for the kindness of joining us.

Ms. EVA YOUNG (President, Eva Young and Associates): Thank you.

CONAN: And you do diversity training for a living. How do you measure success?

Ms. YOUNG: Well, there are two ways. One is through the scorecard that many organizations have in terms of the quantity of hiring, quantity of people attending the workshops and participating, as well as a qualitative measurement, which is, you know, what kind of environment and organizational culture the company has after diversity training. Have the attitudes of employees been impacted by the diversity training?

CONAN: That can be a pretty subtle thing to measure.

Ms. YOUNG: Absolutely, and that's where I think we need to explore a little bit more, because diversity training is really not an end to the diversity journey, and I call it a journey because it is definitely an ongoing process.

You know, we're talking about changing people's biases, inviting them to explore their assumptions, learning about differences. We understand the brain doesn't like differences that much. So we're asking people to rewire the brain, to really explore the habits that they have engaged in making assumptions and judging others.

CONAN: And to suggest that that could happen in the course of a morning seminar or a day-long thing or even a two-day or a week-long thing is, well, that's a lot to expect.

Ms. YOUNG: Absolutely. However, diversity training, it is a point of entry. It is an invitation. It's a way for companies, basically, to set the foundation. When they're ready to engage in a diversity initiative, diversity training sets the language, sets the context, supports the mission and vision of the organization.

So it's a wonderful way for everybody in the company to get on board and to really understand what this is all about.

CONAN: Are there best practices? Do diversity training professionals like yourself talk with other professionals and say, look, we've tried the role-playing, and that really works, or it doesn't, or we've tried the approach where you try to keep it very cerebral and don't get people angry, or we've tried the approach where people - we do go for the emotions? These are all different approaches that people do use.

Ms. YOUNG: Yes, Neal, and one size does not fit all. It's really about understanding your organization and really looking at customizing. Some of the best practices, because we're working with adult learners, include participation, engagement, relevancy and definitely connecting to the work. You know, what is the mission? How is it that I'm going to spend some quality time here today, and what am I going to do with what I'm learning? So give me some tools. Give me some practical applications.

CONAN: Would you expect that if you worked for the XYZ Company over the course of 20 years on a diversity program that at the end of those 20 years you'd be able to look at their management structure and their middle-management structure and say: We should expect that there should be more minorities, more gays, you know, diversity, more women in those positions than there were when we started?

Ms. YOUNG: I will say that it's going to be an incremental process, that...

CONAN: Twenty years. That's incremental.

Ms. YOUNG: However, numbers - yes, and ideally it's not an either/or. It's a both/and - and you do want, just based on your demographics, you do want representation at all levels. But that's not all that you want. You also want equality of the environmental culture. You want equality in the organizational culture.

CONAN: One of those things is easy to measure, and one is very, very elusive.

Ms. YOUNG: That's why we need to start looking at what measurement tools do we have that can help us capture not only the quantitative results of diversity training but also the quantitative - I mean, the qualitative, the qualitative.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some stories from our callers. If you've gone through diversity training in your business, what difference did it make? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Sonja(ph) is on the line with us from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

SONJA (Caller): Hello, yes. My name is Sonja. I am 51. I was born in Puerto Rico, came here when I was about seven years old with my family. And I work with an insurance company.

Diversity training was very helpful for me personally because I've always felt kind of like a victim as far as not being one of the most represented in my area - you know, and I felt like I'd experienced some discrimination, you know, some comments, some jokes in the office about immigration or, you know, oh, I'm Mexican.

People automatically write me off as one ethnicity, and I always felt invalidated until I did a diversity training, and I realized some things about myself, and it was very helpful.

It was a very simple kind of silly exercise, in my opinion, but by the end of it, one of my co-workers was very candid and shared that she felt - she was a lesbian, and you know, it wasn't kind of like an open discussed thing - openly discussed thing around the office, but it was kind of like everyone knew she was a lesbian, and I found myself maybe thinking she couldn't handle customer service as well, or she...

CONAN: I see, because of that, yeah.

SONJA: Because of that. And then after the diversity training, she was very open and very candid with the group, and I was very grateful for that, and it made me take pause and kind of stop...

CONAN: Sonja, thank you very much for that. That's an interesting call. More of your calls when we return. We're talking about diversity training, and this is NPR News.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

You can trace the roots of diversity training back to the 1940s, according to an article in the Boston Globe by Drake Bennett. MIT psychologist Kurt Lewin hoped to train leaders to better manage interpersonal tensions. He used small-group discussions to help unfreeze people's attitudes and, according to the article, coined the phrase group dynamics in the process.

If you're interested, we've posted a link to that article on our site. It's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our focus today, the more modern practice of diversity training. Does it work? What difference does it make in your office? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

Our guests are Elizabeth Levy Paluck. She's studied the effectiveness of diversity training. She's an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton. Also with us, Eva Young, president of Eva Young and Associates, a firm dedicated to diversity training.

And let's see if we can get some more callers on the line. Let's go next to Abdulahi(ph). Am I pronouncing that correctly?

ABDULAHI (caller): Yes, my name is Abdulahi. I'm calling from Tucson, Arizona.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ABDULAHI: Yeah, I came to the United States three years ago as a refugee, and I've had diverse training, both in the corporate and in the public sectors. And you know, if we just use it, you know, you come from a very, you know, diverse background.

I came from Somalia myself, and I find - I'm a believer in actually diversity training, and I like the role-play section. But what happens is after a while, you know, when you're in the job, people seem to forget about these diverse backgrounds.

I, you know, role-play is good, and also I like when in the training, you know, the person, you know, the trainer is kind of towards sensitive to individuals that are from different backgrounds. You know, when they ask - example, one of my last trainings, you know, my trainer ask what I feel about that, and she asked for my input, and I, you know, I saw myself as being the most diverse individual in the training. I - you know, I...

CONAN: I don't mean to put words in your mouth, Abdulahi, but you felt as if your voice was heard on that day.

ABDULAHI: I felt - yeah, I felt as if my voice was heard.

CONAN: But that the lessons did not last.

ABDULAHI: But the lessons, yeah, the lessons didn't last. So in the future, you know, more role-play and more input to the most diverse individuals. That's what I would like to see in the trainings.

CONAN: Okay, Abdulahi. I want to give somebody else a chance, but thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it. And Elizabeth Levy Paluck, I wanted to return to you and this idea that, you know, the qualitative differences, these are - as we were talking about with Eva Young - very difficult things to measure.

Ms. PALUCK: They're very difficult things to measure. I think another point that we should raise is that these difficult things to measure often don't translate into actual behaviors, and so if we think about our goals in diversity training as promoting minorities and women into positions of power, into positions period, then we need to actually question this link between sort of attitudes and then also enacting those beliefs that are portrayed in diversity trainings. And as psychologists, we actually find that this link is very tenuous.

CONAN: What about Abdulahi's point that we just heard a moment ago, that, you know, it can be effective, but the lessons wear off after a little while if you don't re-up.

Ms. PALUCK: One thing that this debate reminds me of is early debates about reducing traffic deaths. And so on one side, you had people saying we need to change citizens' beliefs about the importance of using seatbelts. And on the other side, you had people saying, well, actually, we need to change companies' procedure in terms of how they build cars.

So the idea is, you know, should we convince millions to put on a seatbelt, or should we convince 25 companies to build a car that's safer?

Now, the interesting thing about this story is that in the end, it seems like we've been pretty effective at convincing people to put on seat belts. And that's been done through lots of reminders, you know, the beep that comes on when you get in your car, but actually what turned out in the end to have the most impact on reducing traffic deaths is actually building that better car.

And we've been more effective at that, and why? It's because it involves convincing those 25 companies as opposed to trying to change millions of individuals. And so, I think that there's a metaphor here for thinking about diversity training.

CONAN: Well, in both those instances, you had the advantage of having - to be able to write laws. You can force people to put - or at least, you know, penalize them if they don't click that seatbelt, and you can write regulations that force companies to build, you know, put airbags in their cars.

Ms. PALUCK: That's right, although we have seen that regulation and law in this country has led to the diversification of our workforce. So in fact, affirmative action laws have been quite successful in some areas at doing this and requiring companies to write out plans for their monitoring and their progress of diversifying their workforce.

Setting goals actually does have an impact. It's a different thing than quotas, but the setting of goals actually has had an impact on diversifying the workforce.

CONAN: Let's get Mark(ph) on the line. Mark is calling us from Miami.

MARK (Caller): Hey, good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

MARK: Thank you for taking my call. I sit here tonight, and I listen to your show, which I do every day.

CONAN: Well, thank you for that.

MARK: Today is the day I picked to call in. I work for a Fortune 100 company, and I've been sent to diversity training many times. It's considered a vacation.

As I spoke to your screener, he asked me why I believe that, and here's why I believe it. Growing up in Miami, if I am not in the most culturally diverse place in the world, I don't need a company that's charging the company I work for a lot of money to come in and teach me how to get along with others. It's a joke.

It's totally counterproductive. Those are my personal feelings from attending in the past. I don't want to say the amount of time I've worked at the company, a long time of diversity training, and in my personal belief, it's a way for the company to protect themselves.

If a comment is made, well, you know, he's been to diversity training. Fire him. He's been covered. He violated our Policy 101, goodbye. And it takes the burden completely off the company, puts it on the individual, and it also opens up the reminder to all employees, you know, oh, it's a racial workplace. That's my personal feeling.

CONAN: It brings up - it's counterproductive, in your view?

MARK: Without a doubt.

CONAN: Okay, Mark, thank you very much, appreciate it.

MARK: Thank you.

CONAN: And Eva Young, let me ask you to respond to that. We heard about Elizabeth Levy Paluck saying some of the research says people like Mark, it causes resentments among some of the workers. They don't want to be told what to do. This was obviously mandatory training and that it's a company trying to cover its behind.

Ms. YOUNG: I heard, and thank you, Mark, for your call. One of the things is diversity training alone is not going to be the solution to the issues that the companies are facing. And I understand that he could be resentful by spending a mandatory day just going to one training, but diversity is here to stay, and the purpose is to really engage in an initiative where everyone understands what the business case for diversity is, how to best manage your employees, as well as understanding the value of having a diversity initiative.

The challenge with companies that are just doing one or two times, a diversity training, is exactly what Mark shared. You know, there is not a comprehensive strategy on how those re-trainings fit into what I'm doing here. What is my mission? What is the vision?

CONAN: Do you tell companies that when they want to hire you?

Ms. YOUNG: Absolutely. I think...

CONAN: But if they say we just want to do one day, that'll be fine?

Ms. YOUNG: I personally work with diversity initiatives that are comprehensive, where you have a diversity taskforce or a diversity council. You have an interest in the company, in designing and developing what we call network groups, affinity groups, and the definition and supporting how do they define diversity. What do they want to accomplish with a diversity strategy? Why are they engaging in these initiatives?

And Mark is right. Sometimes companies just see through it litigation or the lawsuit lens. And that I think is what has hurt the diversity field.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and let's go to Karen(ph), Karen with us from Charlotte.

KAREN (Caller): Thank you for taking my call, and I am in total agreement with everything you just said. I work - I'm self-employed now, but for 13 years, I worked in the corporate world, my last in financial services. And we had a wonderful diversity initiative, and diversity in our company was absolutely ongoing.

Not only did we all go through two- and three-day trainings and one-day refreshers, but we actually employed a lot of diversity skills in meetings. We were - we continuously tracked each other and how each other were behaving, how we ourselves were behaving.

I'd say in my 13 years in the corporate world, it was the best training, the best experience I have had that prepared me for life. Those skills, the ability to find more comfort in seeking out differences in people and understanding how their experiences have shaped them has been so wonderful to my existence here. I'm very thankful you're doing this subject today.

CONAN: Karen, thanks very much for the call, and I'm glad you got a lot out of it.

KAREN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email with an opposite point of view from Jamal(ph), and he writes us - I'm not quite sure from where. Isn't this all just a distraction from business? I'm a black software engineer. I'm among the best in what I do, typically, the only black man or woman. I don't expect that to change and am indifferent. I go to work to work. I need only to be civil and respectful to my coworkers. I don't need to have a beer with them all. I believe diversity training is distractive and disruptive to the workplace.

As you've continued to look at this, Elizabeth Levy Paluck, are there better ways that you could think of to measure whether this is effective, or which kinds of programs are more effective than others through time?

Prof. PALUCK: Yes. So a lot of the research has sought to sort out the different kinds of programs from the different kinds of goals that they have, and then also what kinds of effects they have on different groups. So one recent study found that diversity training actually decreases the odds that black women will be promoted into management, that diversity evaluations, when feedback is given to managers, actually decreases the odds for black men. Some people have also looked at the effects of networking programs and mentoring programs. Now these seem to have some positive effects for racial minorities and for women.

And another thing, I think, just to go back to some of the things that Jamal was saying, one topic that's been brought up is that when training and education may activate bias rather than reduce it, and so this is something that psychologists study quite a bit. So when you make these explicit and conscious attempts to regulate your thoughts - and that's not necessary what all diversity training does, but we do know that this can sometimes exaggerate stereotyping and raise issues that might otherwise have not come up in the workplace. And oftentimes, women and minorities are, you know, justifiably upset when this happens.

CONAN: We're talking about diversity training and what difference it makes in the workplace. Our guests are Elizabeth Levy Paluck at Princeton University -you just heard her. She published a paper last year that studied diversity training. And also with us here in the studio is Eva Young of Eva Young and Associates, a firm dedicated to diversity training. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get Fiona(ph). Fiona is with us from Orinda, California.

FIONA (Caller): Hi. I'm crossing my fingers because I'm just going into a tunnel right now. My experience with diversity training comes from a nonprofit perspective. I participated in former President Clinton's Summer of Service and was on Treasure Island for a week and participated in diversity trainings with a really different set of groups - groups from what other people were discussing. We weren't corporate. We were young, 18- to 24-year-olds, from really different backgrounds, kids from, you know, really poor neighborhoods and kids from really affluent colleges all coming together.

And it was, I would describe, a extremely volatile environment for diversity training. But the biggest point I wanted to make is that I think the skills of the trainer make the biggest difference in diversity training because I've seen really fantastic trainers teach diversity training and I've seen really poorly skilled trainers do it. And it absolutely makes all the difference in how the participants, you know, come away from the experience and what they gain from the experience.

CONAN: That's interesting. And, obviously, the quality - and we'll let you go through that tunnel, Fiona. Drive carefully.

FIONA: No. I'm on the other side now. I'm good.

CONAN: Okay, good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But I wanted to ask, obviously, the quality of the trainer. Are there standards? What kind of people get hired to be diversity trainers?

Ms. YOUNG: Absolutely. I think that Fiona is absolutely right. It is critical to have people who are certified, who have an organizational development background, who have done certification on diversity training, who has a strategic management skills, who really have psychology or organizational learning background, who really understand the ins and outs of an organization and can really manage group dynamics and the diversity that will be encountered in the classroom during the session.

CONAN: Fiona, thanks very much for the call. You need to drive safely now.

FIONA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if can go next to - this is Johnny(ph), Johnny calling us from Charlotte, another caller from Charlotte.

JOHNNY (Caller): Hi, good afternoon. I hope everybody is well.

CONAN: Sure.

JOHNNY: I was calling because in my adult experience, diversity education really introduces an implied reverse discrimination in the workplace. Really, it seems to be more geared towards being more accepting of African-American or Latino races or women. But, really, it's not geared towards understanding that there are white people in the workplace, there are men in the workplace also. So, really, I kind of wonder why do we have diversity in the workplace rather than really just falling back on the golden rule in promoting and hiring people based on their abilities.

CONAN: If the golden rule, the application of that in the past, suggests that only white men get promoted and hired, isn't that a problem?

JOHNNY: Well, no, I mean, the golden rule: Treat others like you'd like to be treated.

CONAN: Oh, I see. But if a company does not have, you know, any programs and ends up saying, well, this man was - this white man - all these white men were the best people available and it turns out we have just white men, is that okay?

JOHNNY: Well, no because you're also going to be trying to evaluate people based on their abilities and their merit, not simply on the golden rule itself. You're looking for the best possible candidates to fill those roles to make your organization work - function more effectively.

CONAN: And in some cases, being diverse isn't, in fact, an advantage then?

JOHNNY: Possibly. But you also run into an instance where you have a reverse discrimination on the understanding of diversity.

CONAN: Okay.

JOHNNY: So you - by default, you're telling a certain group of people to be more accepting but not the other to be more accepting...

CONAN: Do not be more accepting of them - I see. All right, so Johnny, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

JOHNNY: Thank you.

CONAN: And we'll end with this email we have from Nicole(ph) in Boise. I went through diversity training as a student at the Los Angeles Unified School District. I went to Camp Student-to-Student(ph). I think starting as a teenager made a huge difference on my outlook on life and on the other ways of life regardless of sex, age, ethnicity or sexual orientation. This was in the mid-'80s before politically correct was even a concept, but this is basically what was taught and discussed. I think if every student went through this we would not need it in our business world. So maybe the idea is to start it before we get into business and then continue it there.

I'd like to thank our guests, Eva Young was here with us from Studio 3A. Thank you very much.

Ms. YOUNG: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: Eva Young of Eva Young and Associates, and Elizabeth Levy Paluck, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton. She joined us from a studio on a campus there. Thank you very much for your time today.

Prof. PALUCK: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up, the end of the line for "The Last Train from Hiroshima." We'll talk about the latest book to face questions of accuracy and what this means for the publishing industry. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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