Workplace Culture

3 Surprising Reasons Diversity Training Fails

By Susana Rinderle

Jun. 18, 2014

WF_WebSite_BlogHeaders-12One of the most common requests that companies like mine receive from organizations is to do training. When done right and well, training increases knowledge, builds awareness and teaches effective behaviors. When done wrong or poorly, training is a waste of money at best, and harmful at worst.

To be effective and provide a high return on investment, diversity training should:

  • Be directly and clearly tied to measurable, meaningful business goals.
  • Yield a measurable improvement in participants’ awareness, knowledge and skills.
  • Be conducted by a company or individual who:
  • Conducts a thorough needs assessment around your training request, listens well and makes specific, well-supported recommendations that will meet your goals (which may look different from what you initially requested).
  • Is a good fit for your organization’s culture, values, goals, geography and stage of the D&I journey you’re in.
  • Is a strategic partner in meeting your needs — which means he or she will advise you and even push back in service of your goals and excellent results!
  • Demonstrates a concrete, meaningful return on your investment of dollars and the time participants spend in training. (If your training partner doesn’t know what a level 3 or 4 evaluation is, find someone who does!)
  • Build skills that are supported and sustained by your organization’s culture, systems and processes.
  • Be only one element of your organization’s broader commitment to excellence and high performance.


Having these elements in place will probably get you a B or B+ training. But to obtain a high ROI and an “A grade” diversity training, ensure the training includes at least two of these three additional surprising — yet critical — pieces:

  • Knowledge of how our brains work and why “bad stuff” persists despite all “the good stuff” we do. Exciting advances in brain science and evolutionary biology give us new and inspiring insight into our mammalian and primate heritage, and how most of our behavior is driven by unconscious biases outside our awareness, control and intention. Educating participants about how unconscious bias works and why our brains function the way they do opens up dialogue, awareness and receptivity in a way that the old “respect each other and be sensitive to differences” script hasn’t. It also tends to inspire buy-in, individual responsibility and meaningful change as long as unconscious bias training includes teaching effective behaviors that mitigate the negative effects of bias.
  • Sufficient work on the necessary internal self-awareness and emotional skills which build long-term competence that can apply to a variety of situations. A training that provides lists of tips or “do’s and don’ts” is narrow and even dangerous. Not only do such lists tend to (unintentionally) narrow our thinking or provide a false sense of security, they can reinforce stereotypes. They can also be incomplete or simply inaccurate since any identity group is extremely diverse and cultures are constantly changing. Effective training should build emotional intelligence, critical thinking, resilience, creativity, problem-solving abilities and a well-stocked toolbox of communication skills.
  • Attention to power differences and how these affect relationships, communication and outcomes. True, the workplace isn’t a democracy. But ignoring the existence of power imbalances — in your organization, on your team and in the world at large — is a tremendous blind spot. Poorly navigated power structures and ineffectively wielded power are demoralizing, inefficient and expensive. Looking at power differences and how these are working (or not) may be messy, but offers tremendous potential in clearing a path to the brilliance and excellence that are the rewards of a meaningful commitment to D&I.


Susana Rinderle is a principal consultant with Korn Ferry, and a coach, speaker, author and diversity & inclusion expert. Comment below or email

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