In Defence of Diversity Training

22 July 2016
What’s New


The most recent edition of Harvard Business Review is devoted mainly to diversity issues. The main article entitled “Why Diversity Programs Fail” might lead some to mistakenly conclude that diversity programs, especially diversity training, simply do not work. But in fact, the thesis of the authors is simply that some diversity programs – and some types of training – achieve their objectives more effectively than others; hardly a notion that anyone who has worked in the diversity area would contest.


To be clear, the authors do not quarrel with the two basic propositions that underpin most diversity initiatives. These are: diverse and inclusive workplaces are better than those which lack these qualities; and having a truly diverse workplace usually does not happen fortuitously. Achieving diversity and inclusion requires a planned, concerted and sustained effort.

Against this backdrop, it is of course, desirable, if not essential, that the efficacies of various types of diversity programs are measured. We at Symmetra accept that progress and change must be monitored and measured with respect to diverse representation at various levels of the organisation as well as with respect to whether a culture of inclusion has been embedded.

Successful diversity programs usually involve a complex interface of initiatives and not merely discrete and unconnected educational efforts which are limited to particular employee levels or which have no follow-up. In fact this is true of any change initiative.

Prerequisites for the strategic success of any diversity program (training or otherwise) are that it must be supported from the top – preferably by the CEO – and diversity strategies must be embedded and fully aligned with other business strategies of the organisation. It must be comprehensive and filter through the entire organisation.


The HBR article starts from the proposition that diversity programs in the U.S.A. were a response to a number of high-profile discrimination and harassment suits – some of them going back to the 1990’s. In fact, modern diversity programs have long-since evolved from the tick-the-box, risk-minimisation forays. We at Symmetra have distinguished between negatively focused “anti-discrimination compliance” and positively focused “diversity and inclusion” training for at least a decade. We’d agree with the authors that most people hate attending compliance training (and being told what to do) and in fact most experienced L&D professionals hate delivering it.

But it is important not to confuse risk-management techniques – such as hiring tests, performance ratings and grievance procedures which are instituted as a shield against potential discrimination claims – and true inclusion programs which are conceived and implemented as wide-ranging strategies to leverage diversity in order to benefit teams and  optimise business performance. Our programs are designed to confer skills and capability benefits to participants, enabling them to confidently and effectively lead diverse teams and make better decisions – not browbeat them into compliance.

So, to identify methods such as mentoring and institution of diversity councils as being highly effective (as the HBR article does) and stating that in comparison training and anti-biasing modalities are ineffective is almost certainly overly-simplistic. The benefits of mentoring and diversity councils are likely to be much better achieved when the scope and purpose of the entire diversity initiative has been explained and absorbed through an initial educational program that delivers a consistent message across the business. Another paper from the same authors found that whole-of-organisation, culturally-focused, voluntary diversity training does improve diversity. Even the compliance focused training so negatively reviewed will still deliver modest positive results when paired with proper accountability structures.


Companies which have consistently made the top 50 list for diversity in the U.S.A., such as Novartis, EY, Sodexo, Johnson and Johnson, and Accenture, to name a few, have all implemented long-term diversity awareness and skills training programs on their journey to being and remaining the best diversity companies. When executed correctly as part of a broader strategy, diversity training can be shown to deliver excellent results.

At Symmetra, we are continually learning, adapting and modifying our programs to help embed an inclusive workplace culture for our clients and to achieve measurable changes in their diversity profile. We applaud research which examines what works, and the underlying message that companies who think a series of quick training sessions are some kind of silver bullet need to think again. But we hope that readers of the HBR use this research to help guide the design of effective training programs and diversity strategies, not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.