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What Is Diversity & Inclusion Training? (+Why It’s Important)

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This post is part of a series called How to Improve Diversity in Your Business (Essential Guide).
What Is Generational Diversity? How to Embrace It & Avoid Ageism
Top 10 Cultural Awareness & Diversity Topics in the Workplace (2018)

What went wrong? Diversity and inclusion training was supposed to make people more sensitive to the people they work with, to make companies more diverse, and to help them take advantages of the many business benefits of diversity.

Instead, as we’ll see later on in this article, some academic research shows that diversity and inclusion training has resulted in a decline in the numbers of women and minorities in management positions. Instead of seeing diversity training as an opportunity to learn about other people and work with them more effectively, many employees have come to resent it or ignore it.

Diversity and Inclusion Training
Diversity and inclusion training can help companies realize the benefits of diversity. (Image Source: Envato Elements)

But there’s also good news. These difficulties have also led experts to look for better ways of doing diversity and inclusion training, and a set of best practices has emerged, which you can use to get it right at your company.

So, in this tutorial, you’ll learn what diversity training is, why it’s important, and what forms it takes. Then we’ll look at why so much diversity training fails, before learning how to do it better. By the end, you’ll be well positioned to avoid some of the pitfalls and make your own diversity and inclusion training programs effective and engaging.

1. What Is Diversity & Inclusion Training?

Let’s start by defining diversity and inclusion training. Essentially, it’s a way of educating employees about how to work with people from different backgrounds.

There are broadly two types of diversity training: awareness training and skills training. The first is about raising people’s awareness and helping them to see the world through the eyes of someone of a different age, race, gender, etc. The second involves specific exercises to help people build skills, such as communicating better with people from diverse backgrounds and reducing the levels of unconscious bias in their decision-making. 

Like all training, diversity and inclusion training can take many forms. Often, a specialist facilitator will come into the workplace and run sessions for employees in which they break off into groups and complete tasks. But it could also be delivered online or provided as written materials for employees to work through in their own time. You can learn more about different types of training in this tutorial:

Whatever form it takes, however, the overall goal of diversity and inclusion training is generally to help create a work environment in which people of all backgrounds can feel comfortable and collaborate effectively. 

2. Why Is Diversity & Inclusion Training Important?

When it’s done right, diversity and inclusion training can help companies realize the benefits of diversity, which include above-average financial returns, more innovation, better decision-making, happier staff and customers, and more.

It’s important to understand that diversity and inclusion training is not a silver bullet. Running a training session, or even multiple training sessions over time, can’t create a diverse and inclusive workplace on its own. The training should be part of a wider program of actions aimed at promoting diversity, such as recruitment strategies, HR policies, promotion tracks, employee retention programs, and so on. You can learn more about those in our other tutorials in this workplace diversity series

Nevertheless, training is an essential component. No matter what other programs you put in place, they won’t be effective if your employees are showing bias or prejudice in their day-to-day decisions. Diversity and inclusion training can open your employees’ eyes to wider perspectives and help them perform better.

Running regular training programs also shows your own commitment to diversity and inclusion, which can have benefits of its own. A Deloitte study found that when employees “think their organisation is committed to and supportive of diversity and they feel included,” there’s an 83% increase in their ability to innovate.

3. Why So Much Diversity Training Fails

Now let’s get to the hard part. Academics Alexandra Kalev and Frank Dobbin have analyzed three decades’ worth of data from over 800 U.S. firms, in addition to interviewing hundreds of managers and executives. 

Their conclusion? Mandatory diversity training actually led to fewer women and minorities in management positions.

Results of mandatory diversity training
Source: Harvard Business Review

There are other long-term studies showing more positive results, but still, these results are clearly discouraging. So why is so much diversity training having more or less the opposite effect to what the companies intended? 

Kalev and Dobbin claim that the problem is in how the training is run and the messages that are conveyed. More specifically:

“Three-quarters use negative messages in their training. By headlining the legal case for diversity and trotting out stories of huge settlements, they issue an implied threat: ‘Discriminate, and the company will pay the price.’”

Threats, it turns out, are not great ways of changing people’s behavior. They just lead to resentment and resistance. 

Another problem is that people don’t like being told what to think. Compulsory diversity training can give employees the impression that they’re being punished or brainwashed. Sometimes, people associate it with liberalism or another political ideology, and since they disagree with that, they disregard the whole training. The results in those cases are detrimental. Again from Kalev and Dobbin:

“Trainers tell us that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance—and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward.”

Another common problem is that diversity training is often a one-off event with little clear relationship to the real, everyday workplace. So even if participants are engaged and keen to learn, they don’t put what they’ve learned into practice when they return to the office, and the benefits quickly fade. Consider this quote from Villanova management professor Quinetta Roberson:

“We saw examples where employees would go back to their job excited about what they learned, but their managers would say, ‘I don’t care about all that diversity stuff. You’ve been gone for a day or two. I need you to do X, Y and Z.’ ”

In some companies, too, diversity training can degenerate into a formal box-checking exercise. Employees have to show up to a couple of days of training just so that the company can comply with regulations or protect itself from lawsuits. In this kind of corporate culture, it will be clear to employees that nobody really takes the training seriously, so it’s not surprising that the results aren’t good.

4. How to Provide Effective Diversity & Inclusion Training

Now that we’ve seen what can go wrong, I think it’s time to look at how to get it right. What kind of diversity and inclusion training really works? You’ll learn some of the best practices in this section.

Start With the “Why”

If people are going to get the most out of diversity and inclusion training, they need to understand why they’re there. 

That means explaining the business case for diversity: why it’s important to your business and the ways in which it can help. It also means explaining the individual benefits. How will this training make people better at their jobs? What specific outcomes can they expect? 

For more on the business case for diversity, see the following tutorial:

Mix Awareness and Skills Training

As we saw back in section 1, diversity training can be focused on building awareness or on building skills. The evidence shows that the best training programs incorporate a mix of both types:

“A recent meta-analysis of over 40 years of diversity training evaluations showed that diversity training can work, especially when it targets awareness and skill development and occurs over a significant period of time.”

This makes sense—after all, it’s clearly important to make people aware of things like unconscious bias and to help them see things through other people’s eyes. But it’s also important to go beyond abstract thinking and give people concrete skills that they can use in the workplace.

So consider mixing things like unconscious bias tests and privilege awareness exercises with exercises to help people build specific job-related skills, such as role-playing scenarios to help managers communicate better, or programs tailored for recruitment managers to teach them how to recruit with diversity in mind.

Make It Voluntary

The research I mentioned earlier by Dobbin and Kalev shows something interesting. While mandatory diversity training led to adverse outcomes, voluntary training actually increased the numbers of women and minorities in management positions.

Results of voluntary diversity training
Source: Harvard Business Review

This can be tough—the people who most need diversity training in your organization may be the least likely to show up. But the evidence suggests that forcing them to show up doesn’t work too well, so perhaps you can think of ways to use the carrot rather than the stick.

Be sure to emphasize the positive aspects of the training too, framing it as an opportunity to learn valuable skills rather than a punitive exercise. 

Encourage Mentoring

One striking aspect of the above chart is how good the results from mentoring are. This isn’t strictly “training” so I won’t go into it in too much depth, but it’s an alternative development strategy that can be very effective in various ways.

Giving people the chance to pass on skills and knowledge helps newer members of the organization, many of whom may be from previously under-represented groups. But it also helps the senior members who are providing the mentoring to overcome their own biases by having more contact with people from other backgrounds. 

So, make mentoring a key part of your diversity and inclusion strategy. Those numbers speak for themselves. 

Embed Diversity & Inclusion in Other Training

If diversity truly matters to your business, shouldn’t it be part of all your training, not just the dedicated “diversity” program?

For example, when you’re training new salespeople in the skills they’ll need for the job, you should ensure that you’re training them to sell to people from all sorts of different backgrounds. When you’re running communication skills training, part of that could be about communicating across different cultures. When you’re coming up with role-playing scenarios for other training programs, you could ensure that different groups are represented there too.

Be Inclusive

This should be a given with diversity and inclusion training, right? But sometimes, training focuses more on one dimension of diversity, such as race or gender. Don’t forget to include other dimensions, such as age and religion. For more on the different dimensions of diversity, check out the following tutorial:

Set Goals and Measure Progress

Projects tend to work out better when they have clear goals that are regularly measured to track progress. That applies to diversity and inclusion training too—both on a company level and an individual level.

For individuals, some studies have shown that participants in diversity training who set goals achieve better outcomes than those who don’t. The experts in this HBR article recommend having people “set specific, measurable, and challenging (yet attainable) goals related to diversity in the workplace.” For example, they might challenge themselves to speak out the next time they hear inappropriate comments about marginalized groups.

For the company, too, it’s important to set goals. What do you want the outcome of the diversity and inclusion training to be? How will you measure success? This could be linked to organizational goals such as greater equality in the representation of different groups in management positions, or it could be about the attitudes and behaviors of the participants themselves, measured through regular surveys to see if changes occur. 

Choose something that makes sense for your business and measure it over time to see if the training is having the effect you want. Also take steps to ensure that the lessons are carried beyond the training itself, for example by including diversity and inclusion goals in people’s performance evaluations or by having regular updates and progress reports.

Conclusion

As you’ve seen in this tutorial, diversity and inclusion training can be difficult to do effectively. When it’s done right, it can lead to a wide range of benefits for individual employees and for the whole company. But too often, it leads instead to adverse outcomes.

Today, you’ve learned some techniques to help you run more effective diversity training programs in your workplace. I encourage you to think through some of these ideas and make a plan for how you could implement them in your own business. Also, please make suggestions in the comments if you’re aware of any other best practices that I haven’t mentioned.

If you want to learn more, you can browse through the rest of our comprehensive series on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

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