Does sensitivity training actually work?

There are unpleasant truths many businesses must be prepared to confront before they can truly start talking about “a culture of collaboration.”

In an article for CNN Money, reporter Tanzina Vega notes, “26% of blacks and 15% of Hispanics said they felt that they had been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity at their place of work in the past 30 days.”

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Carolyn Buck Luce and Lisa J. Servon cite workplace hostility as the biggest reason why 52% of women in science, engineering and technology quit their jobs.

These, of course, are just two in an ever-growing number of statistics and studies demonstrating how many employees becomes victims of unsavory, unacceptable treatment.

This is a huge issue. What’s a business to do?


The case for sensitivity training

To foster an environment of mutual respect, sometimes people need a framework that defines what is right and what is wrong. This establishes a set of explicit rules for acceptable employee conduct, and it sets a strong tone that allows people to operate mindfully. This also helps companies avoid the awkward instance in which someone oversteps boundaries and management needs to scramble to respond and repair the damage done.


The case against sensitivity training

After Philadelphia Eagles receiver Riley Cooper was caught directing a racial slur towards a security guard at a concert, the team’s managers responded by placing him in a sensitivity training program. But Slate’s Brian Palmer suggests, “It’s nearly impossible to undo any underlying racism in a few hours. Most importantly for the employer, the session provides some legal and public relations cover.”

Indeed, the science shows most diversity training programs are ineffective. Generally, they are provided to create the perception that an organization is taking a proactive stance towards acceptance and inclusion, regardless of how strongly management felt about the issue. What’s horrifying, though, is Peter Bregman’s claim, “Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice. It promotes it.”

Among those I interviewed, the rare advocates of sensitivity training were exclusively consultants who offered sensitivity training services. That should come as no surprise. Yet, the minorities I spoke to overwhelmingly agreed that diversity training does little to curb bad workplace behavior, and, in some cases, indeed just as Bregman says, cultural sensitivity programs wind up encouraging further discrimination. Sensitivity training, as a job requisite or punishment, creates resentment towards minorities, or sets them up (or the offenders up) as the butts of jokes, all of which downplays the severity of the issue.


Scientifically proven approaches to diversity support

In a 2007 report for the American Sociological Association, Alexandra Kalev, Frank Dobbin and Erin Kelly studied the effectiveness of six different approaches to diversity management. Among those, diversity training, diversity evaluations and network programs had largely negative effects in creating fair and equal workplaces. Mentor programs, diversity taskforces and diversity managers, on the other hand, were overwhelming successes—although diversity taskforces seemed to disadvantage white men.

Kalev, Dobbin and Kelly write, “Mentor programs put aspiring managers in contact with people who can help them move up, both by offering advice and by finding them jobs. This strategy appears to work… Such programs can provide women and minorities with career advice and vital connections to higher-ups.” Diversity managers, the scholars agree, also work well because they are responsible for spotting workplace problems and finding appropriate solutions. By holding someone accountable, change actually happens.


How leaders can set the right tone

In Los Angeles, co-owners Karim Webb and Ed Barnett of PCF Restaurant Management have spent the better part of the last decade developing young, diverse workers across three restaurant locations. Yet the two have never formalized a sensitivity training program. For their business, they have decided to take a different approach to fostering a safe and secure workplace.

“We insist upon high performance,” they told me. “We instill a ‘no excuse environment’ in our business, and encourage our Team Members to accept that many of them are ‘different’ or come from disadvantaged upbringings.” The two seem to allude to what Ricky Yean, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and CEO of PRX calls “mindset inequality.” To help their staff overcome the crippling effects of growing up underprivileged, the pair claim, “We have [a] ‘take responsibility for your life program’ that is infused in every element of our leadership.”


When strategic hiring can resolve the issue instead

An entrepreneur who requested to remain anonymous for this story agrees that diversity training programs are bunk. As someone who grew up in New York’s inner city, his belief is that bias in adults is far too ingrained to resolve with a multi-day sensitivity training workshop. Ultimately, to ensure a member of his staff never says anything insensitive about someone else’s culture, race or sexual orientation, he commits to hiring people he describes as “worldly but not privileged.”

Though other business owners may disagree with his methods, there is something worth noting in his approach. Organizations can be more proactive about developing a discrimination-free environment by recruiting a team that is open-minded and values mutual respect. Ultimately, whether a business implements formal sensitivity training programs or not, the main goal should be to foster a workplace where peers demonstrate mutual respect, and ignorance is not an excuse for unfair treatment.

Post by Danny Wong

Danny Wong is an entrepreneur, marketer, and writer. He is the co-founder of Blank Label (an award winning menswear company focusing on luxury made-to-measure garments) and does marketing at Grapevine (a platform that drives eCommerce, helping retailers partner with YouTube celebrities). Tweet him @dannywong1190