Every Starbucks in America will be closed Tuesday afternoon so the company’s nearly 175,000 employees can attend a mandatory training session aimed at reducing racial bias and discrimination. Starbucks decided to take the sweeping action after a high-profile incident in April involving a white employee who called police on two black men waiting in a Philadelphia Starbucks to meet with a business partner. But research suggests that just one half-day of training is unlikely to turn things around.
The Starbucks training isn’t typical of most diversity training, which usually attempts to improve internal relations between employees of different races and cultures. Instead, Starbucks is focusing on improving the way employees interact with customers. But the company is hardly alone in relying on training sessions to reduce bias and discrimination. Diversity training is a hugely profitable industry. A one-day class for 50 people is estimated to cost as much as $6,000, and large corporations budget hundreds of millions of dollars for diversity initiatives annually.
If only they were worth it. Recent reviews of research literature suggest that these trainings are often implemented without much follow-up on whether they actually work and that most companies are implementing the least effective forms of training. What’s more, said Frank Dobbin, professor of sociology at Harvard University, these types of trainings probably aren’t the best way to reduce discrimination in the workplace, even when they’re done well.
There have been more than 1,000 studies of diversity and anti-bias training programs over the years, but most of those studies were deeply flawed. A 2009 literature review found that most papers about diversity training did not look at experimental results but rather surveys or descriptions. Meanwhile, the ones that were experimental in nature looked at very small groups of people, who were usually taking training courses under conditions that were very different from real world corporate settings. Volunteers at a university are likely to respond differently than employees of a company who are attending a mandatory workshop, for instance. And almost all the studies relied on self-report questionnaires to judge how well the trainings worked. A different group of scientists found that was still true in 2012. “In quantitative terms, the literature on prejudice reduction is vast,” wrote the authors of the 2009 review. But, they concluded, most of it doesn’t tell us anything.
What we do know: A single-day training session isn’t going to cut it. A different kind of review paper in 2016 focused just on studies that were either experimental or that at least provided a pre-test baseline and tracked results beyond participant surveys. It found a series of characteristics for trainings that were associated with better results — longer trainings are better than shorter ones, interactive trainings where people from different backgrounds work together are better than lectures. But one of the biggest takeaways is that the skills and information that people get from a diversity training are forgotten quickly, said lead author Katerina Bezrukova, professor of organization and management at the University of Buffalo. If a training session is like a vaccine, you’re going to need booster shots to keep it effective.
Even the best training methodology had only a small to medium positive effect on changing participant attitudes and behaviors. “And it’s closer to small,” Bezrukova told me. Imagine that you had to guess who had taken a diversity training and who hadn’t based on how well both did on a test of their anti-discrimination knowledge. Bezrukova’s analysis held that your guess would be right about 58 percent of the time — not a lot better than chance.
That doesn’t surprise Dobbin, who has studied diversity trainings at more than 800 companies over 30 years. The majority of companies institute diversity trainings from the perspective of trying to protect themselves in a lawsuit, he told me. They want to be able to demonstrate to a jury that it was mandatory for all managers to know the law on discrimination — but that kind of training can actually backfire and produce more resentment than it alleviates, he said.
Instead, both his research and Bezrukova’s review suggest that it’s more effective for companies to demonstrate their commitment to diversity as part of everyday practice. That means making systemic changes that emphasize anti-bias training throughout the year, Bezrukova said. And it means setting goals for individuals and departments and assigning responsibility for making sure those goals are met.
It also means having more minorities in management, Dobbin told me. Only 15 to 25 percent of companies have special recruitment programs to bring minorities and women into management, he said, but his research holds that these programs could be much more effective at reducing discrimination and harassment within companies than training is. Companies with more women and minorities in positions of leadership are better places for women and minorities to work — and not just because those diverse managers treat people like themselves better. “One thing we’ve known for a very long time is that the best way to reduce racial animus and bias is to put people working together, side by side, as equals, and allow people to get to know others from different groups,” Dobbin said.
Diverse bosses do that. Mentorship programs do that. Diversity task force teams can do it, too. Diversity training sessions, he said, aren’t nearly as useful.