By Cheryl Hurst, Lecturer • Leadership Organisations & Behaviour
As a diversity and inclusion researcher with an interest in fulfilment and a background in organisational psychology, I am sometimes asked to speak at events and conferences specifically to HR professionals. It can be difficult because you never know the type of room you’re walking into – some people are informed about the ‘EDI agenda’, some people have personal experiences of discrimination, and some people think it’s all just performative wokeness. I’m often asked about how to implement different interventions and maintain momentum – but rarely am I asked “Is our plan likely to work?”
If we’re going to get serious about diversity and inclusion, it’s time to consider what we know about intervention strategies and behaviour.
What do we know about what works?
Equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) is a priority now more than ever. Nearly every large organisation has an EDI statement, goal report, or other activities based on creating diverse and inclusive cultures. In many cases it’s proactive: Channel 4’s 360 Diversity Charter [c1] is such an example. They’ve outlined clear motivations and benchmarks for underrepresented groups. They’ve set themselves up as changemakers within the industry and are strong advocates for prioritising cultural change. In other cases it’s reactive, for example in 2018 Starbucks lost nearly $12 million [c2] in revenue when they decided to close more than 8,000 stores for a day to put their staff through racial-bias training. This was after an incident where two Black men were racially profiled by Starbucks staff members in one of their stores.
Based on research evidence, it’s unlikely that Starbucks will see measurable benefits from their one time training. In contrast, Channel 4 is well on their way to making sustainable, positive change. We don’t have the magic formula for reducing biases, eliminating discrimination, and ensuring everyone at work feels included and fulfilled. However, we do know a lot about the contexts which are likely to promote EDI goal achievement.
For example, experts agree that mandated or one-time corporate training programs are not effective in changing subconscious biases of employees. There is a vast body of literature that shows that unconscious bias training has limited long term effects on diversity, inclusion, or discrimination at work, especially when it done as a one-off training session[c3] . While it may raise awareness that unconscious biases exist, it does not reduce biases, alter behaviour, or change workplace cultures, nor is it followed by increases in managerial diversity.
Even further, the studies that do show positive results with this type of training are not consistent across different group[c4] s. While bias training may help reduce bias against Black men, the same intervention does not reduce bias against Asian men. Also, studies that show positive effects of unconscious bias training make it clear that the results wear off within a few days of taking the training.
On the positive side – there is demonstrable efficacy [c5] in longer training sessions that give people opportunities to ask questions and reflect on what they’re learning and experiencing. There’s also a connection between biases and habit formation[c6] . In some settings[c7] , “habit” training is actually shown to improve the retention and recruitment of women because it breaks down the behaviours that result from our biases. Overall, research shows we must focus on behaviour and how it can be mitigated and accounted for, [c8] and not on awareness or controlling behaviour.
[c4]Lai CK, Marini M, Lehr SA, Cerruti C, Shin JE, Joy-Gaba JA, Ho AK, Teachman BA, Wojcik SP, Koleva SP, Frazier RS, Heiphetz L, Chen EE, Turner RN, Haidt J, Kesebir S, Hawkins CB, Schaefer HS, Rubichi S, Sartori G, Dial CM, Sriram N, Banaji MR, Nosek BA. Reducing implicit racial preferences: I. A comparative investigation of 17 interventions. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2014 Aug;143(4):1765-85. doi: 10.1037/a0036260. Epub 2014 Mar 24. PMID: 24661055.
The Importance of Leadership
One of the strongest predictors of EDI goal achievement (including creating and maintaining inclusive cultures) is having structures of responsibility[c1] . This can be an inclusion and diversity manager, Chief Diversity Officer, or an EDI task force. And they must have the support of the leadership team. Studies covering over 30 years and thousands of organisations tell us this: effective change requires a point of call and a person in charge. Organisational cultures improve when there are dedicated task forces and managers appointed to achieve specific goals.
They must also have the support of leaders who are willing and able to role model appropriate behaviour. This is another reason one-day diversity training programs don’t work: they do little to signal a true commitment to change.
The added caveat is that task forces and responsibility structures can’t be composed exclusively of people from underrepresented groups. Those with institutional power and privilege must be part of change programs.
Despite years of knowing that anti-bias training is expensive and ineffective, I still hear from companies proud of their participation and happy for their one day of training. Moving forward, a goal should be to better connect the research on EDI and organisational behaviour with practitioners in the field.
Developing task forces, EDI committees, and creating staff positions that focus on EDI as their role is important to see strong positive effects on diversity. It’s also likely to benefit ROI, with reduced turnover, improved wellbeing, and enhanced innovation across work teams.