Does Sensitivity/Diversity Training Really Work?

“Are we seriously going through another sensitivity training session? We had one 3 months ago!”

The US Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced that 84,252 workplace discrimination charges were filed for the year 2017. On top of that, the average cost for a defense and settlement payment per discrimination case was $160,000 and it took, on average, 318 days for the claim to be resolved. Given these eyepopping statistics, many companies are taking strides to prevent this exposure through prevention-oriented training. However, we must ask ourselves the question: Is this actually effective, or is this JUST procedure?

A study published in the journal Contexts in November 2007 of 829 companies over 31 years showed that diversity training had “no positive effects in the average workplace.” Millions of dollars a year were spent on the training resulting in, well, nothing. Attitudes and the diversity of the organizations remained the same.

There are unpleasant truths many businesses must be prepared to confront before they can truly start talking about “a culture of collaboration.” Workplace hostility is cited by the Harvard Business Review as “the biggest reason why 52% of women in science, engineering and technology quit their jobs.” These are just two examples which demonstrate how many employees becomes victims of unsavory, unacceptable treatment.

Jeff Weintraub, an employment attorney at Fisher Phillips says that ” In my experience, the only sensitivity training that can effectively prevent future misbehavior by supervisors is training that clearly demonstrates what the supervisor has to lose. For instance, sexual harassment violates company policy, so the supervisor needs to understand that engaging in sexual harassment of employees will result in termination, not to mention the potential that the supervisor could end up in a divorce. However, while fear can be an effective way to change misbehavior by supervisors, fear is never desirable, nor is it even necessary; mentoring supervisors is a far better mechanism to truly change patterns of behavior and prevent bad behavior.”

This is a huge issue. What’s a business to do? We can start by analyzing the pros and cons of sensitivity training.

The Pros:
For sensitivity training to effectively foster an environment of mutual respect, it is helpful to present 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, requiring management to step in to respond and repair the damage done.

Protected Classes
The EEOC offers employers advice about what restrictions they can and cannot place on employees, including what questions they can and cannot ask in job interviews. This advice is to prevent protected classes from being discriminated against. For example, if an employer wants to put weight restrictions on employees, then he should be able to show that weight is an important issue, such as in the job of airline steward. Asking about weight can seem insensitive to people struggling with their weight management especially. Managers who have gone through sensitivity training are more likely to conduct interviews in a sensitive manner and avoid lawsuits against the company.
Preventative Lessons
Sensitivity training for employees helps people understand each other and get along, both in the business world and in their personal lives. Employees learn valuable skills in sensitivity training that benefit the business, but they can also take these skills with them through life. They learn appropriate conflict resolution techniques, such as focusing on the facts of the conflict and not personal differences. They learn to be non-judgmental and are taught to be tolerant for diversity. They also improve their communication skills.

The Cons:

Diversity training has been consistently yielding flawed results. A combination of defenses, and retaliatory behaviors are the main reasons why these programs can yield neutral to negative responses.

Role of Defenses:

One of the problems with sensitivity training lies in the way psychological defenses are dealt with by the group. Most frequently, the individuals with the “problem” are openly attacked. Once his or her weaknesses are exposed, the group converges on them in an attempt to lay the problem completely open. Due to this, the “problem” person instinctually builds barriers around his or her behaviors and barricades themselves out of pure psychological necessity. These barriers often lead to an impenetrable insistence of them refusing to believe they must be trained, or irrationally continue on with their reckless behavior.

Adverse Effects:

Sensitivity training, as a job pre-requisite or intervening action, tends to create 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. Many reports note that diversity training simply does not work at all. 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.”

The newer way of handling diversity and sensitivity issues:


Mentoring is a more convening way to engage managers and employees to chip away at their biases. In teaching their protégés job skills and sponsoring them for key training and assignments, mentors give their protégés the assistance they need to develop and advance. The mentors then come to believe that their protégés merit these opportunities, whether they’re white men, women, or minorities. That is cognitive dissonance — “Anyone I sponsor must be deserving”—at work again.

Mentoring programs make companies’ managerial echelons significantly more diverse. On average they boost the representation of all minorities from 9% to 24%. Mentor programs put aspiring managers in contact with people who can help them move up, both by offering advice and by finding them jobs and advancement opportunities. Such programs can provide women and minorities with career advice and vital connections to higher-ups.

Strategic Hiring

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. Often, organizations reach out to industrial organizational or human resource consultants to create turnkey program and assessments in bringing these values out during the entire onboarding process.

A Call to Meaningful Action

In conclusion, as businesses have evolved, so have the practices designed to counter detrimental workplace behaviors. Organizations and HR departments must move on from the standard “preventative/intervening procedures” to meaningful efforts that eliminate biases in the workplace and at their very foundation. Without a cultural shift in organizational mindset, many HR professionals and executives will find themselves back at square one with their employees moping, “ANOTHER sensitivity training session!?”

Contact Links:
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Stay in touch with us

Subscribe to our newsletter