If you had to choose between mediocre diversity and inclusion (D&I or DEI) training or none at all, which would you choose? It's intuitive to say "mediocre"—some D&I effort has got to be better than none at all.
But, according to researchers at Harvard University, poorly executed diversity and inclusion training often causes more harm than good. Programs like these—which often look like a mandatory video or quiz that’s distributed once per year—are doomed to fail because they don’t address the more subtle and often disguised forms of bias and structural inequality that lie beneath the surface. More often than not, these programs actually increase prejudices.
This scary thought aside, anti-bias and diversity training can have tremendous benefits for every work environment when done properly. Most importantly, successful D&I training programs must be robust, dynamic, and sustained to be truly impactful. Here, we’ll share tips on developing training that encourages team members to confront and understand their internally held biases and provide a path to do better moving forward.
Most importantly, successful D&I training programs must be robust, dynamic, and sustained to be truly impactful.
In a meta-analysis of over 40 years of diversity training research, researchers concluded that for diversity training to be truly effective, it had to take place over an extended period. Many problematic beliefs are so deeply ingrained that it takes a sustained effort to overcome them. While even one employee training session had a positive effect on team members’ attitudes and behaviors, as time passed, they regressed back to where they were before the training. A more permanent change took time and repetition.
Oftentimes, diversity training initiatives are treated as a one-and-done activity, like a module to be completed during onboarding or an annual video all staff must watch. Instead, commit to an ongoing D&I education program that continually reinforces themes of inclusion and confronts conscious and unconscious biases.
Incorporate D&I in your company beyond a singular workshop through the different formats your employees can participate in. These formats might include affinity groups, courses, a book club, an email drip, guest speakers, celebrations, etc., that speak to the many different experiences of employees across your company. Implementing any one of these formats alongside your existing training is a big step toward developing an entire D&I program at your company.
Another learning format is to create microlearning courses on different topics surrounding diversity issues and dole them out monthly.
Although it may sound counterintuitive, mandating diversity training for your entire company isn’t always the best policy. A 2009 meta-analysis by researchers at Harvard and Yale found that compulsory diversity training often sparked animosity among unwilling participants. These findings were corroborated when researchers at both Harvard and Tel Aviv University analyzed the study’s data in 2016.
Despite these findings, most companies treat diversity training as compliance and make it mandatory for all employees. In their 2016 analysis, Harvard and Tel Aviv University researchers also found that most companies haven’t changed their approach to training since the 1960s, despite lots of incoming evidence that these old methods simply don’t work.
If you make training voluntary, some team members may choose not to participate, but those who do will get far more out of the training. Studies show that just making a choice to participate in training makes employees feel more invested in diversity and less likely to pick up new biases. It doesn’t matter why they chose to take the training; the fact that they chose it makes employees more receptive to the messages contained in the training.
Although it may sound counterintuitive, mandating diversity training for your entire company isn’t always the best policy.
Two exercises in particular—perspective-taking and goal setting—are especially effective because they encourage active learning. D&I training often centers around watching a video or presentation and filling out a questionnaire during onboarding, but an active approach is more engaging.
When learners take on active exercises, they are forced to engage with the training materials, whether it's talking with colleagues about complex topics or writing about experiences outside of their own worldview.
Perspective-taking is an exercise that challenges participants to put themselves in the shoes of an individual from a marginalized group.
In 2017, researchers from George Mason University, Rice University, and Indiana University conducted a joint study and found that perspective-taking can spark empathy and improve participants’ behavior—not just toward one specific group but toward all marginalized groups. In their study, participants who underwent a perspective-taking exercise from the point of view of an LGBTQIA+ individual ultimately felt more empathy for racial minorities and vice versa. Even more, the exercise had long-lasting effects that were measured eight months after the training took place.
Perspective-taking could look like a role play with a small group or one-on-one conversations. It could also take the form of writing exercises. For example, invite employees to write an essay from the perspective of a demographic other than their own, detailing the challenges they believe the group faces. Have them consider social, economic, and cultural factors that might affect the group’s behaviors, views, and opportunities.
Diversity-related goal setting helps modify employees’ actions, changes their attitudes, positively impacts their decision-making, and has been proven to lead to a more inclusive environment.
In the 2017 study mentioned above, researchers replicated a well-known study asking participants to set goals throughout diversity training. The results showed that participants who set goals were more likely to later show support toward colleagues with different backgrounds.
Ask participants to set realistic, measurable goals related to their own behavior and attitudes around workplace diversity. These goals should be treated like any other KPI: measurable, challenging, but attainable. For example:
Collaborative learning has been shown to enhance participants’ openness to diversity by giving them the chance to interact meaningfully with people with different backgrounds and perspectives. As they move forward in their jobs, the shared training experience provides a new level of accountability toward maintaining the standards set forth during training.
Take advantage of these benefits by giving team members the opportunity to learn not only together but also from each other during diversity training.
Incorporate group discussions, employee-led bias training sessions, and perspective-sharing into your courses. For example, invite team members to share their personal experiences and perspectives on diversity in the workplace and what they believe an inclusive workplace might look like. (This exercise should be voluntary; nobody should be forced to share if they are uncomfortable.)
Read more: 4 Benefits Of Collaborative Learning, Backed By Science & Psychology
While an effective diversity training program benefits any company, it cannot serve as a standalone response that speaks to the importance of diversity or corrects imbalances surrounding sexual orientation and racial and gender diversity inside your company. Any training you roll out should coincide with a deep examination of how biases, microaggressions, and structural racism play out inside your company.
Make diversity and inclusion key values, and incorporate them into your company’s structure, from hiring and onboarding to training and beyond. Stay up to date on current research and thinking on D&I in the workplace, and commit to antiracist policies throughout your company. Only then will we start to see the needle move toward a more diverse workforce and inclusive culture.