Workforce Diversity Training: From Anti-Discrimination Compliance to Organizational Development

By Bendick, Marc; Egan, Mary Lou et al. | Human Resource Planning, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Workforce Diversity Training: From Anti-Discrimination Compliance to Organizational Development


Bendick, Marc, Egan, Mary Lou, Lofhjelm, Suzanne M., Human Resource Planning


Our survey of training providers reveals that contemporary workplace training about employment discrimination and workforce diversity encompasses a variety of approaches. Many training programs focus on individual attitudes and appear to have only modest effects. To the extent that training more comprehensively addresses individual behavior, organizational systems, and employer performance goals, their effectiveness appears to increase. A particularly comprehensive approach, rooted in the theory of organizational development, can be identified by the presence of nine benchmark training practices. Although initiatives adopting this final approach appear to be the most effective, they are commonly implemented by only 25 percent of diversity trainers.

In the first decades following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, anti-discrimination training in the American workplace primarily provided straightforward rules to employees about behavior required or forbidden under federal and state laws. Training in this style remains common, now frequently focusing on such topics as sexual harassment and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Starting in the mid-1980s and accelerating throughout the 1990s, many of these efforts have evolved into more ambitious undertakings with a different label -- diversity training -- and a more strategic role in human resource management.

This study empirically profiles diversity training in American workplaces today, using a structured survey of training providers. It describes this training's varying forms and assesses their effects. We find that the most modest training programs typically focus on individual attitudes, whereas more comprehensive efforts typically add consideration of individual behavior and employers' human resource policies and systems. The most comprehensive initiatives, which we define with nine benchmarks, are full-scale efforts to change workplace cultures using organizational development approaches. As the scope and depth of training efforts increase, their effectiveness, as perceived by both training providers and our research team, also increases. Nevertheless, only about 25 percent of training providers in our survey typically practice the most comprehensive, organizational development approach.

Prior Research

No definitive estimate is available concerning the prevalence of diversity training in the American workplace today; however, it appears to be undertaken by the majority of large employers in both the public and private sectors, as well as a substantial proportion of medium-size and smaller ones, and its use continues to expand. For example, a 1995 survey of the 50 largest U.S. industrial firms found that 70 percent had a formal diversity management program, typically including training, and an additional 8 percent were developing one (Lynch, 1997, p. 7). In a 1994 survey of members of the Society for Human Resource Management, 33 percent reported that their employers provided training on workforce diversity, making it about as common as training in sales techniques (35%) or clerical skills (3 1%) (Rynes and Rosen, 1995). And in a 1995 survey, 50 percent of members of the American Management Association reported having formal programs for managing diversity, with training a usual component; this figure had r isen from 46 percent in 1992 (AMA, 1996, p.6).

Despite diversity training's prevalence, little systematic research is available to resolve often-vociferous debates about its nature and effects. One side of these debates argues the continuing need for and effectiveness of the activity. Some authors emphasize the benefits for employees in terms of reduction of discrimination, while others emphasize the benefits for employers in terms of productivity. For example, Thomas (1990, p.108) has written:

Women and blacks who are seen as having the necessary skills and energy can get into the work force relatively easily.

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