The Failure of Anti-Bias Training: Is Employee Engagement the Solution ?

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20180304_202223.jpgEarlier this year, my wife and I seized the opportunity to travel to Doha, Qatar to visit our son who was stationed at nearby Al Udeid Air Force Base. It was a remarkable experience. We toured the Souq Waqif (photo above), the Pearl20180306_133717.jpg (photo at right) and the Museum of Islamic Art (photo at below left), tasted the international cuisine, soaked up some sun, and swam in the Persian GulfThumbnail image for 20180305_180220.jpg. As we engaged with those we met, we realized that despite our differences, we shared many things in common. We all seem to enjoy a good meal with friends and family, basking in the sun (photo below at left)Thumbnail image for 20180307_164434.jpg, and Coca-Cola (photo below at right)20180305_120046.jpg, to name a few. Though our visit was brief, we left with a better understanding of the people living and working there.

What does this have to do with workplace training? It’s all about engagement.

For years I have espoused workplace training as a critical step toward ending employment discrimination and harassment. While I still maintain that training is a very powerful tool, research suggests that the traditional model of mandatory training, which typically emphasizes rules and policies and is often a single event or done infrequently at best, is not effective and may actually backfire. So, is it time to rethink workplace training?

In their article, Why Doesn’t Diversity Training Work? The Challenge for Industry and Academia, Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev wrote in Anthropology Now that “hundreds of studies dating back to the 1930s suggest that antibias training does not reduce bias, alter behavior or change the workplace.” They posited five reasons why:

  1. Short-term educational interventions in general do not change people.
  2. Anti-bias training activates stereotypes, and diversity training typically encourages people to recognize and fight the stereotypes they hold.
  3. Training inspires unrealistic confidence in antidiscrimination programs, making employees complacent about their own biases.
  4. Training leaves whites feeling left out (and, I submit, men in the case of sex discrimination / sexual harassment training).
  5. People react negatively to efforts to control them.

If this traditional model is a failure, what’s the solution? From my perspective, the key is to recognize that merely implementing a written anti-discrimination/harassment policy and mandating an occasional training session will not have the desired effect. Rather, consider taking the approach advocated by Dobbin and Kalev:

  1. Practice behaviors that increase contact with and empathy for other groups (that is, engagement).
  2. Be aware of the “moral licensing” concept (that is, the feeling of it being OK to do something bad after doing something good).
  3. Reduce the likelihood that whites and men (and, I submit, any traditionally “majority” or “mainstream” groups) will feel excluded by noting that that their perspective is a part of multiculturalism.
  4. Recognize that mandated training that stresses law and policy may make participants rebel and resist being “controlled.” (From my legal perspective, it seems risky to make training purely voluntary and/or to avoid addressing law and policy altogether. However, making the message more positive and more focused on the practical real-life implications of discrimination and harassment may lessen the otherwise negative response to the training.)

Dobbin and Kalev summarized it well:

The key to improving the effects of training is to make it part of a wider program of change…. The trick is to couple diversity training with the right complementary measures…. Our statistical analyses show that diversity training can improve the effects of certain diversity programs, but employers have to complement training with the right programs – those that engage rather than alienate managers.

Thus, by creating an environment where different groups engage with each other in a way that causes them to organically realize their similarities while respecting their differences, anti-bias training would seemingly be far more effective, and perhaps one day unnecessary.

For more information on workplace anti-bias training or other employment law issues, please contact MSBA-certified Labor and Employment Law Specialist Tom Jacobson.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not to be interpreted as legal advice.

© 2018 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Cass, PA.

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