3 ways to improve your diversity training

According to a professional diversity trainer and global DEIB impact manager.

Cartoon image of a young professional participating in a virtual diversity training for work

When you design a diversity initiative, the obvious goal is to choose diversity training that fits your company’s specific needs. What may be less obvious is that your diversity training choices will reflect more than your code of conduct — they’ll also represent your work culture to your employees on a larger scale. And if people feel like you just need them to check a box, they aren’t likely to be engaged.

So, how can we make diversity training in the workplace interesting, impactful, and something people will actually want to attend? This is a question I’m constantly striving to answer in my role as a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) manager and trainer — and for good reason. One 2021 report found that although 32% of employers mandated diversity training for employees and 34% mandated it for managers — more on the “mandating” piece of this later, by the way — these efforts largely rang hollow. As many as 80% of companies were just “going through the motions” when it came to DEIB, that report found, with no accountability in place to ensure the impact of these trainings.

As the Global DEIB Impact Manager at PowerToFly, I’m not interested in checking boxes or perpetuating that mindset. For real engagement and a company culture that employees are excited to take part in, here are my recommendations for implementing and improving upon diversity training in a way that’ll help move the needle.

What are the characteristics of effective diversity training?

When I talk about my job and what I do, I don’t tell people that I’m managing and providing diversity training. I don’t even use a standard diversity training definition; instead, I focus on the big picture. I speak about creating and facilitating brave spaces and opportunities for individuals to explore their intersectional identities — spaces that prioritize safety and empower every individual to bring their whole self to work. This holistic approach is what actually makes an impact.

Similarly, holistic diversity training programs should not just be theoretical. They need to also foster practical action and implementation steps. An effective diversity training program pushes employees to expand their knowledge and further communicate with and understand each other better. This desire to understand and connect becomes the foundation of authentic company culture.

There are many different types of training that fall under the larger category of diversity training. While your “bucket” training topics will encompass broad themes — like race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, language, religion, age, neurodiversity, physical ability, and socio-economic status— you can break down your trainings into more specific topics and areas of focus, like:

Beyond reviewing the training topic and its relevance to where your company is now and where it’s ideally going, also consider if this training will actually get people connecting and communicating. To that end, my tip is to look for the following three elements: interaction, alignment with your company culture, and delivery across multiple channels.

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1. Interaction

Implementing a diversity training program is a practice of intentional inclusion in your organization. It is the logistical behavior aimed at expanding and improving your employee experience.

Sitting through a lecture with no opportunity to verbally contribute? Or perhaps an online Zoom meeting with 200+ attendees? These are examples of checking a box — and your employees know it.

To encourage real interaction in your diversity training, you can:

  • Let people know they have multiple options for participating, whether in the chat or over their mic. Whatever makes them feel most comfortable.
  • Rather than desperately trying to fill dead air-time, welcome silence. It gives people the chance to meaningfully speak up and participate, particularly those who need time to process before they engage.
  • Allow different types of learners to feel supported and seen. That can include sending out materials in advance of the training, so that neurodiverse folks can review ahead of time (and hopefully avoid feeling overstimulated in the training itself, with the need to follow along visually as well as auditorily).
  • Explicitly invite the group to answer reflective questions that connect their own personal experiences to the topic.
  • Facilitate small-group discussion spaces. That can include breakout rooms during the training, but also spaces for extended interaction with a topic outside of the one session.

Interactive diversity training requires intentionality. But that’s also just the starting point. Plenty of organizations have good intentions without follow-through actions. Discussion-based training allows opportunities for your team to speak up and share, and intentional interaction helps people develop the tools and understanding they need to be more readily mindful of others’ experiences. Real, vulnerable discussions are where storytelling becomes a tool for growth — at PowerToFly, we like to call them listening circles. They will have more impact on the bigger vision and day-to-day practices in your workplace than another boring lecture.

2. Alignment with company culture

Everyone from brand-new recruits to veteran employees engage with diversity training programs. These programs are designed to engage and support employees, increase allyship and growth, and create an opportunity to invite everyone — regardless of identity or background — to bring their whole selves to work. In other words, they’re meant to foster an environment of true inclusion and belonging.

What does engagement with training look like? The answer depends on your company culture.

If the culture is more traditional and conservative, an informal or artsy creative training approach may not be well received. And vice versa. If your company culture is more flexible and welcomes things like remote work and open offices, an uptight style of formal training isn’t nearly as likely to work. Why? Your diversity training needs to be reflective of your existing company culture and not feel like an afterthought or add-on. It’s very important to proactively incorporate this when curating a diversity training plan.

If you’re struggling to get a sense of how your company culture would translate to diversity training, a good first step might be naming your company values. Does your workforce feel aligned with these values? Your on-paper culture and values may need to shift to reflect the reality of your workplace. Consider surveying employees to get a clearer sense of where your company culture is currently, and where folks would like to see it move to.

3. Delivery across a variety of channels

Effective diversity training programs offer a variety of different channels to engage all employees. Everybody learns, communicates, and processes information differently. Some folks may learn best in a classroom setting with a facilitator-led, established curriculum. Others may want interactive diversity training options available online. You should always ask employees about their preference in how they want to engage with the material.

Above all, the diversity training itself should also demonstrate and welcome diversity in learning styles.

Some education channels to consider include:

  • In-person classroom trainings, including role playing and interactive simulations
  • Asynchronous programming, so employees can move at their own pace
  • Webinars hosted by external SMEs
  • ERGs and Affinity Groups
  • An in-house DEIB committee
  • Internal employee-led discussions and listening circles
  • FAQ forums where leadership can engage and source peer recommendations
  • Resources such as blogs or downloadable guides that you can study and share
  • Diversity consultants (who are from a variety of backgrounds and hold diverse identities themselves)
  • Strategic mentorship to empower and accelerate change

Why does diversity training fail?

As we’ve written about previously, DEIB training is not automatically impactful — in fact, some training can actually do more harm than good. It’s important to have a clear understanding of some of the common reasons diversity training fails, so that you can build that awareness into the way you do go about implementing your training. Forbes gives the following five reasons for why diversity training fails.

1. Resistance — on the part of staff or leadership

2. Improper implementation — utilizing only a traditional lecture format, for instance, and ignoring the role of structured mentorship and other interactive models

3. Lack of consistency — especially when a diversity training is held in reaction to a particular problem or incident

4. Lack of leadership buy-in — training pitches don’t address the projected ROI of a program in a way that speaks to (sometimes) apathetic executives

5. The diversity label – even mentioning "diversity" can lead to increased stress and anxiety, especially for White men; proactive framing around the importance of these programs, as well as creative labeling for the program itself, can help ease resistance

Let’s not forget the DEIB industry’s well-known failure factor: mandatory attendance. Research has shown that mandatory diversity training sometimes leads to worse behavior and poor impressions in many employees, and has even been linked to decreases in diversity on leadership teams. Voluntary training, meanwhile, has been linked to the opposite: increases of 9% to 13% in Black men, Hispanic or Latino men, and Asian-American men and women in management five years after training. Encouraging buy-in to DEIB training, it turns out, may mean letting people feel they’ve chosen to support and engage in long-term change.

3 ways to improve your diversity training

Now that we’ve explored a handful of the reasons diversity training fails, let’s get into some pragmatic ways to improve your company’s diversity training. From tracking outcomes to incorporating the right cultural cues, I have three main tips to improve the success of your diversity training program.

1. Aim for changing behavior.

Diversity training programs should go beyond imparting knowledge and be aimed at changing behaviors. To do that, diversity training programs need measurable outcomes to stay on track, show progress, and highlight gaps. Too obvious? Surprisingly, 76% of companies as of 2021 still had no concrete diversity or inclusion goals at all.

It makes sense to talk about goals in relation to diversity training, but how exactly can you measure whether your training is effective?

Pre-/post-training surveys: Use this data collection technique to gauge employee understanding of a topic before and after attending a diversity training. If responses don’t align with your indicators, discuss strategies to improve those outcomes. (This can also be a great way to gather employee feedback on ongoing programming).

Use tech resources: Recently, we sat down with Emily Felner from Logicworks to discuss people-first techniques at work. She described the Slack integrations she uses to solicit quick employee feedback, like Donut, Officevibe, and Bonusly. Use the tech platforms at your disposal to track if behavior is changing.

2. Ensure fit with brand and tone.

What’s the elephant in the room when contracting out for diversity training? That the partnering facilitator doesn’t match the personality of the organization. Diversity training, much like DEIB as a whole, is not a one-size-fits-all situation. The material should reflect your company tone and branding, too, so that it integrates seamlessly with other company training modules.

When partnerships are rushed or aren’t properly evaluated to reflect the personality, feel, and values of your company and its culture, you can end up with what feels like a performative initiative.

3. Be realistic.

My final recommendation to improve your diversity training is to set realistic goals. Training can certainly change some aspects of work life, but it takes time and consistency — a few hours of training isn’t enough to shift your entire culture. Offering diversity training is also not going to automatically translate to increased diversity at your company (unless you’re conducting trainings on recruiting diverse candidates, that is). It can perhaps increase diversity indirectly by improving your company culture and making it a place where diverse talent wants to work. But we need to be explicit about what training can (and can’t) achieve.

One study found that the “most effective diversity training programs help participants identify and reduce bias" — a modest aim. Diversity initiatives are proven to be successful — and to show measurable improvement — when they have realistic aims.

When looking at one diversity training session, the results may be short-term and require outside tools to ensure they're connected to concrete behavioral and cultural changes. The larger goals of a diversity initiative can take years to achieve, and require steadfast commitment to the growth process.

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