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Analyzing the Most Effective Methods of Diversity Training

SDI Productions / iStock

Editor’s Note: WorldatWork, in partnership with the Center for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa), is proud to announce a new Workspan Daily series that will utilize research as evidence to inform decision-making for the benefit of our readers and to encourage further discourse on topics vital to the total rewards profession. This series will present scientifically sound research on topics that rewards practitioners deal with as well as informed opinions that, at times, may actually contradict what sound research tells us.

Special thanks to Natasha Ouslis, director and science translator at ScienceForWork, for her consultation and review of this article.




Diversity (DEI) training has been defined as “instructional programs aimed at facilitating positive intergroup interactions, reducing prejudice and discrimination, and enhancing the skills, knowledge and motivation of participants to interact with diverse others.” Put differently, it aims to reduce people’s bias, prejudice and discrimination against others.

Training can target different types of diversity, such as gender, race, ethnicity, demographic background, ability, health status (i.e., disability) and sexual orientation. It can be divided into awareness- and skill-based training. Awareness-based training makes employees conscious of their biases, prejudices and cultural assumptions with respect to minorities. This training often uses case studies and experiential exercises. Skill-based training develops employees’ proficiency in handling diversity in the workplace. Various tools are used to improve employees’ interpretations of cross-cultural differences, communication with people from different cultures and adaptability.

Researchers have grouped outcomes of training into cognitive, behavioral and attitudinal learning, as well as on trainee reactions. In the case of diversity training, cognitive learning refers to the extent to which trainees acquire knowledge about other cultures and problems or issues among different groups. Behavioral learning refers to the development of skills and behaviors. Attitudinal learning refers to the development of trainees’ attitudes toward diversity.

The following is based on a CEBMa study published in August of 2019.


Is Diversity Training Effective? 

  • In general, diversity training elicits strong emotional reactions, and most participants see the training as worthwhile.

A recent meta-analysis indicates that diversity training elicits intense emotional responses, and participants see the training as effective and worthwhile, although there are drawbacks evident in some cases. Training reaction is an antecedent of learning that leads to the desired behavior in the short term. However, some people might like the training for reasons that are not directly related to its content (e.g., the trainers’ sense of humor), and as a result, their diversity-related attitudes and behaviors will not change.

  •  Reactions to diversity training and attitudinal learning appear to decay, whereas cognitive knowledge is maintained over time.

A meta-analysis found that cognitive learning (e.g., knowledge about different cultures) persists in the long run. After training, cues in the workplace or elsewhere reinforce cognitive responses that trainees have learned. In contrast, studies have consistently shown that participants’ attitudes are less subject to change after training than cognitions and behaviors. Attitudes may gravitate back to the original ones after the diversity training ends if negative attitudes that a person had before the training are reinforced. In this sense, environmental prompts can even provoke “backfire effects” that reverse or slow skill development.

Context Influences Effectiveness

  • Positive reactions to training are considerably stronger in an educational setting compared with an organizational setting.

A possible explanation might be that employees in organizations see diversity training as an “add-on” practice, something that “takes time away from work” and that it is secondary to the purpose of the organization. Instead, diversity training in an educational setting is usually part of the mission of such institutions, so it might be perceived as an opportunity to learn about diversity and prejudice and apply concepts through experiential learning.


  • Training that is part of a larger diversity program tends to have better outcomes for both attitudes and behavior.

Companies rarely make diversity training part of a broader institutionalized effort. Yet integrated or embedded training can lead to strong behavioral learning and moderately strong changes in attitudes. Employees may be more motivated to learn when managers commit to diversity efforts above and beyond that of a single initiative. In addition, the components of the larger program could strengthen one another.


  • Training with mandatory attendance has stronger positive effects on behavioral learning, whereas voluntary attendance has stronger effects on reactions.

Attendance requirements do not affect all outcomes, but mandatory diversity training was found to have a moderate to strong effect on behavioral learning, whereas participants’ reactions were considerably stronger when attendance was voluntary. A possible explanation is that people who willingly take training may already have an interest in the issue and are thus more likely to enjoy the training. However, a voluntary approach seems not to lead to the strongest effects in diversity training. One reason for this could be that under the voluntary scenario, people participating in training already want to be there and are not necessarily the ones who would benefit most from changes in cognitive, attitudinal, or behavioral outcomes. In addition, a mandatory attendance policy might signal that the organization is truly committed to facilitating positive intergroup relationships, thus enhancing trainees’ motivation to learn.

Design Influences Effectiveness

  • Diversity training has stronger positive effects when it provides longer and distributed opportunities to learn.

The advantage of longer training interventions does seem to transfer to more positive reactions and better diversity knowledge, attitudes and skills. It seems the longer participants spend together, the better they get along, which makes intergroup encounters comfortable and feel right. Training that provides (distributed) practice, yields better attitudinal outcomes. The finding that one-time practice fares worse than distributed learning was confirmed by a recent systematic review of studies in educational settings.

  •  Diversity training that provides greater opportunities for cooperative contact and social interaction within the training pool yields mixed findings.

Diversity training can either focus on one group (e.g. race) or target multiple groups (e.g. race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). The group-specific approach (i.e. involving only one minority/majority group) has been criticized as leading to intergroup differentiation and polarized attitudes. In several studies, training that targets multiple groups and where trainees interact with members of other groups has greater effects on attitudes compared with training that focuses on one group. Yet an equal number of studies found no differences.

  •  Diversity training has stronger positive effects when it emphasizes both awareness and behavioral components.

Most effective types of diversity training programs were primarily designed to increase both diversity awareness and skills. Awareness training focuses on getting participants to be more aware of their own and other cultural assumptions, values and biases. Skill-building (behavioral) training educates participants on monitoring their own actions and appropriate responses to specific differences, such as identifying and overcoming interracial communication barriers. Overall, several studies show that combining both awareness and behavioral components enables people to better understand their behavior.


  • Diversity training that combines multiple instructional methods does not seem to have stronger effects.

Diversity training can use several different instructional methods or just one. It is reasonable to assume that training that “touches all the bases,” combining multiple methods (e.g., lectures, simulation exercises, group activities and discussions, etc.) leads to better outcomes. However, studies find this has an effect only on how much people like training and it does not affect cognitive, attitudinal or behavioral learning. Active methods and face-to-face methods seem to lead to more positive attitudes than passive ones and online training.

  •  Diversity training that focuses on one single aspect of demographic diversity has a stronger positive effect than aiming at multiple aspects.

While focusing on multiple aspects of diversity training (e.g., generic diversity training, multicultural or sexual harassment) yielded moderate effects on cognitive learning, it was found that dealing with one aspect of demographic diversity (e.g., race) at a time leads to considerably stronger effects on cognitive learning. However, it should be noted that there is a lack of empirically validated research studies that focus on disability. Therefore, it is possible that the evidence for diversity-specific interventions may be missing.

Trainee and Trainer Characteristics Influence Effectiveness

  • A larger proportion of women in the training group leads to stronger reactions, whereas a more diverse training group might have greater effects on cognitive learning.

Since women have a history of experiencing discrimination, the finding that they tend to be more receptive and welcoming of diversity training makes sense. Findings regarding the race composition of the training pool are, however, mixed.


  • Characteristics of the trainer affects outcomes at the effective and cognitive levels.

It was found that trainees’ motivation is higher and effects on attitudes are stronger when a direct manager/supervisor delivers the training, as opposed to an internal trainer belonging to a minority group, a diversity and inclusion manager, or by an HR generalist. However, it was also found that cognitive learning was more affected when the trainer belonged to a minority group.


  • Studies on the effects of de-biasing training are almost absent.

Simply being aware that human judgment is subject to cognitive biases does not prevent them from occurring. Yet studies on the effect of de-biasing training are scarce. A recent study found that a single training intervention (i.e., playing a computer game or watching an instructional video) has sparked de-biasing effects that persist across a variety of contexts affected by the same bias (e.g., blind spot bias, confirmation bias, fundamental attribution error, anchoring, social projection and representativeness).

Here, games that incorporated personalized feedback and practice yielded the strongest effect. This type of simple intervention can be used alongside improved incentives, information presentation, and nudges to reduce costly errors associated with biased judgments and decisions. It should be noted, however, that no single study can be considered strong evidence — it is merely indicative.

About the Authors

Robert J. Greene is the CEO of Reward Systems Inc.

Eric Barends is managing director at the Center for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa).

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