Making diversity training work

Feb 25 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Organisations are under pressure to improve diversity in their workforces. However, many do not know where to start: this is a sensitive issue with high ideals. How can diversity training be made to work?

The independent Institute for Employment Studies (IES) has just completed a large-scale review for the Home Office of the impact of racism awareness and cultural diversity training across the public sector. Commissioned as a direct outcome of the Report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, this has just been published by the Home Office.

To help organisations realise the benefits of diversity training, the report is acccompanied by a good practice guide “Training in Racism Awareness and Cultural Diversity”.

Research behind the Guide showed a huge investment but uncertain results.

According to Penny Tamkin, Principal Research Fellow at IES, “there is now an industry providing racism awareness and cultural diversity training to organisations. However, many organisations do not know where to start. It is a sensitive issue that needs careful handling and appropriate training delivery. The ideals can be high, with an impact throughout the organisation, affecting internal culture as much as customer service or business to business practice.”

So with expectations so high, what is the reality behind diversity training? How can we make it work, and achieve the ideals we hold?

It is clear that diversity training can and does work, but too many organisations fail to realise the benefits. The desire to do something can be so strong that it becomes a need to do anything, with disappointing consequences. What is needed is a guide to help organisations understand:

  • where they are in relation to diversity issues
  • where they want to be
  • how to plan the route there, and
  • being able to tell when you have arrived, and are ready to move on further.

The initial reaction has often been one of rapid and unplanned response, in a single hit of training, and ticking off the requirements as done. A quick ‘sheep-dip’ for everyone does not have a lasting impact. Less appreciated was that diversity is embedded in all aspects of organisational culture and practice, and that attitudes take time to change and follow wider social trends.

Good practice for evolutionary change

Almost two-thirds of the organisations IES contacted in the course of the research were providing some kind of diversity training for their staff. This represents a huge investment, and it is clear that many organisations are not getting the most from it.

As co-author of the report Emma Pollard (IES Research Fellow) comments:

“Racism and diversity awareness is evolutionary. Organisations can’t arrive in a day, nor stand still. It isn’t a matter of training individuals in individual attitudes, it’s more a case of achieving a culture that genuinely values difference and benefits from it. Alongside training, organisations need good support structures and systems, to keep the momentum going and deal with implicit objections or resistance. Diversity has to remain an important issue.”

The sensitivity and complexity surrounding diversity means that organisations need to be prepared for resistance, to think about who has power in the organisation, and create initiatives to deal with it. It is more than equal opportunities; it is about acknowledging and respecting difference, and the contribution that this can make to the organisation. The Guide provides a host of detailed good practice hints for delivering training, and dealing with individual and organisational resistance.

In the course of the research IES looked at the approach to diversity training of more than 700 organisations across the public sector, at what they do, why they do it, what support they get and if it works. IES also carried out detailed case studies in 14 organisations, held discussions with approximately 250 employees and community representatives, and surveyed a further 700 employees.

”Training in Racism Awareness and Valuing Cultural Diversity” (Home Office Development and Practice Report no. 3) is a short guide available free of charge at