The record for diversity training programs is not good. In a T+D article titled, “Why Diversity Training Doesn’t Work…Right Now,” Aparna Nancherla concludes:

Various studies have shown that diversity training is ineffective. It’s not always just the training itself that is flawed. Sometimes it’s also the program’s context and delivery. Some of the major shortcomings include limited understanding of the scope of the issue, coverage of only legal and compliance aspects, and lack of buy-in from senior leadership.

However, before indicting all diversity training, we need to make distinctions among the different types of programs and their purposes. It’s one thing to spend two hours on explaining harassment to a group of managers; it’s quite another thing to spend three days trying to make employees more tolerant and accepting of each other. Both are considered diversity training but they are apples and oranges.

If the intent is creating teams of mutually trusting and highly engaged employees, we have evidence that this can be done. I had the opportunity to interview employees who had been through a three-day, diversity training workshop intended to achieve this goal. My interest was in the impact of the workshop on business results. I heard a story from a manager about how, prior to the workshop, he would fire any employee who showed the slightest bit of negativity in the workplace. One employee, in particular, was very close to being let go. After the workshop, he met with this employee and talked with her about her situation and what she needed to do to be more successful at work. She became one of his best workers. We can calculate the value of that learning to the company. It's substantial.

Another story I heard was from a manager who, prior to the workshop, was losing money on a contract he had with a partner company in another country. The partner company did not appear to be fulfilling its responsibilities in the agreement. The manager had just assumed that employees of the other company understood his expectations and assumptions about contracts. After the workshop, this manager decided to have a conversation with the partner and discovered that they viewed contracts differently due to culture and language. This resulted in a new working relationship and a new agreement that became profitable for both companies. We can calculate the value of that learning to the company. It's substantial.

We know how to make training work. To do so we need to be clear about intended outcomes, align the training with those outcomes, create a context in which that learning is supported and valued, and follow-up to measure impact. This is true of any training, but even more so when we are trying to influence deep seated values and prejudices.