The Diversity Training Pain Islandbilly diversity training

Diversity training has a bad reputation and diversity professionals are at fault. Diversity training alone is too often marketed as a strategy. This leads to unreasonable expectations about outcomes. Consider the research by Professors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev. Their 2006 diversity training publication received considerable media attention because the research concluded that the practice does not increase diversity in management level positions (article link).

diversity Training with flipchart

Busting the Myths About Diversity Training

I challenged their assumption that diversity training alone can change an organization. Too many diversity professionals are quick to offer training without identifying the organization’s competence gaps (article link). Diversity training is a data driven tool when used properly—not a program. It is one tool among others to deploy in an organizational change strategy. A major problem is that most diversity programs are merely a set of diversity best practices that have been haphazardly put together, but that is a topic beyond the scope of this newsletter. Let it suffice here to say that diversity training, as with any other practice, must be strategically implemented based on a data-driven change strategy designed to move an organization from its current identified state to one in which members experience greater inclusion.

Another assumption Dobbin and Kalev make is that all diversity training is the same. A number of factors determine the degree to which diversity training is effective. Many human resource managers request sensitivity training when confronted with complaints about racism or sexism. The problem is that most of their employees have had a similar training in some form or another given its popularity over the past 35 years.

Group Diversity Training

One site visitor to DTUI.com’s diversity blog confided that he had taken a similar cultural awareness course for different employers. He asked for my opinion about employers accepting certificates from similar training so that employees would not be required to go through it more than once. He arguably makes a good point. His predicament puts him on Pain Island.

Designing High Impact Diversity Training

We teach Diversity Trainer Certification participants that the ideal way to utilize diversity training is to view it as one solution among a set of diversity practices (article here). I have described the cultural competence framework in detail elsewhere (article here).


Cultural competence has four components: awareness, attitude, knowledge, and skills. Cultural competence represents the degree to which an individual has developed maximum capability for each component. The higher the number of people in an organization with high cultural competence, the more culturally component the organization is as a whole. A sense of inclusion increases at the same rate.

Developing a culturally competent organization requires identifying performance gaps. A typical scenario is an individual with high cultural diversity awareness and values diversity, but has little knowledge and skill competence based on an assessment. The result is that they tend to come off to others as prejudice when talking about and managing diversity. Giving these individuals more awareness training is a waste of time and resources. They need knowledge and skills training to increase proficiency.

diversity certification

Evaluating Diversity Training

The cultural competence framework is useful for evaluating off-the-shelf diversity training. Simply categorize the objectives, modules, exercises, etc. as either awareness, attitude, knowledge, or skill. The resulting frequency data will inform you about the specific component competence the training emphasizes. Most of the existing training, including the popular unconscious bias training, will likely fall into the awareness and attitude categories and far short of developing skills.


In conclusion, the diversity training field has been around for decades, but it suffers from lack of relevance for modern organizations. A prevalent faulty assumption is that the training can change organizations. Research on the utility of diversity training is problematic as a result. But, you can break the cycle. This article presents a cultural competence approach to designing diversity initiatives and training with considerable promise for getting us out of this quagmire. It will feel like cruising from pain island to pleasure island.


Kalev, A., & Dobbin, F., & Kelly, E. (2006). Best practices or best guesses?: Assessing the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies. American Sociological Review, Vol. 71 (August: 589-617).

Vaughn, B. E. (2008). The short-sighted Washington Post article about diversity training. DTUI.com Diversity Blog. http://dtui.com/diversityblog/14/.

Martin, M., & Vaughn, B. E. (2007). Cultural competence: The nuts and bolts of diversity and inclusion. Diversity Officer Magazine http://diversityofficermagazine.com/cultural-competence/cultural-competence-the-nuts-bolts-of-diversity-inclusion-2/.

DTUI.com (2001). The Organizational Inclusion Assessment Toolkit.  DTUI.com http://dtui.com/measurement-metrics/assessment-tool/.

About the Author:

Billy Vaughn,, PhD (Dr. Billy) is an award-winning psychologist and cultural diversity expert. He has many publications, serves as the Diversity Executive Leadership Academy director, as well as consults and trains for Fortune 500, defense sector, and government clients. Learn much more about him at http://dtui.com/about-dtui-com/billy-e-vaughn-biography/.

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