On the surface, any diversity training seems like it would be better than nothing at all. Unfortunately, that is not true.
Studies show that poorly executed diversity and inclusion training can cause more harm than good.
Many companies approach diversity training from a place of obligation: they’re more concerned with avoiding lawsuits than creating real change inside the organization. This sets most courses up for failure from the very beginning. They attempt to dictate employees’ actions without addressing the more subtle forms of bias and structural inequality that lie beneath the surface. Not only is that ineffective, but these programs can also actually increase prejudices.
It’s a scary thought, but it doesn’t mean you should shy away from diversity and inclusion training completely.
L&D departments need to approach the subject intentionally, and as part of a more substantial diversity and inclusion initiative. Anti-bias and diversity training, done correctly, should encourage team members to confront and understand their internally held biases and provide a path to do better moving forward.
Here are four major principles, based on studies and research, that can help you create a more positively impactful anti-bias and diversity training program.
Many companies approach diversity training from a place of obligation: they’re more concerned with avoiding lawsuits than creating real change.
Diversity training that takes a prescriptive, authoritarian approach is more likely to cause friction and inflame prejudices rather than combating them. Instead, use positive incentives to encourage wholehearted employee participation. That may include making participation optional.
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. You need to be in the right headspace to find any value in this type of education. Team members who didn’t want to be there in the first place often left a training with even more biased feelings toward marginalized groups.
This flies in the face of the traditional view of diversity training, which is that it should be mandatory and should stress compliance above all else. The Harvard Business Review analyzed three decades of data from 800 businesses to conclude 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 the 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 choose to take the training, the fact that they chose it makes employees more receptive to the messages contained in the training.
Encourage more team members to take the course by incentivizing participation. Offer time off, a book stipend, a catered lunch, or even a monetary bonus for employees who take the training.
Most people don’t think they are racist, but the progress of minority groups in the workplace tells us otherwise. Help team members uncover their internal biases and their effects on the workplace in a safe, supportive space.
According to HBR, 75% of training programs lean on negative incentives and prohibitive language to discourage undesirable behaviors. The messaging is: “Don’t do these things, or we’re going to get sued.” Back in the workplace, the threat is: “Don’t do these things or we all have to go back to diversity training.”
But the possibility of getting in trouble is not an effective deterrent for most people. It may change their actions under supervision, but it doesn’t address the underlying beliefs that cause issues. As the Harvard Business Review points out, since most systematic discrimination happens when nobody is watching, disciplinary messaging does little to change hiring practices, workplace attitudes, and microaggressions in the workplace.
A more effective approach is to move away from prohibitive language and instead tie initiatives to the goals and missions of your company. Highlight how inclusion fits with the company’s values and how it moves the entire company forward. You can reinforce this message by having managers and C-suite executives participate in the same training programs as entry-level employees.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have a zero-tolerance policy toward discrimination; it means that training needs to take a more positive approach to be effective. Ask employees to help you meet the company’s D&I goals instead of just threatening them with consequences.
Most systematic discrimination happens when nobody is watching, disciplinary messaging does little to change hiring practices, workplace attitudes, and microaggressions in the workplace.
Passive diversity training that simply requires participants to watch videos or read materials doesn’t have the same long-lasting impact as courses that require students to actively engage with the course materials. This is obvious to anyone who has ever sat through a dry, dull training on any subject, but team members respond better to D&I training when it uses multiple methods of instruction.
In addition to training videos or lectures, your courses should include the opportunity for participants to test and expand their knowledge through discussions, role-playing, or other exercises.
Here are some active-learning techniques that have proved to be effective in diversity training:
Perspective-taking challenges individuals to put themselves in the shoes of an individual in a marginalized group. In this simple exercise, individuals write one or two paragraphs from the perspective of the target group, detailing the challenges that group faces. Have them consider social, economic, and cultural factors that might affect the target group’s behaviors and opportunities.
Studies show that perspective-taking can spark empathy and improve participants’ behavior not just toward the target group but also toward all marginalized groups. Students who underwent a perspective-taking exercise from the point of view of an LGBT individual ultimately felt more empathy for racial minorities and vice versa.
Ask participants to set realistic, measurable goals related to their own behavior and attitudes around diversity in the workplace. These goals should be treated like any other KPI: measurable, challenging, but attainable. For example:
Diversity-related goal setting helps modify employees’ actions, changes their attitudes, and has been proved to improve employee behaviors in both the short and long term. In one study, participants maintained their improved pro-diversity attitudes eight months after training.
Collaborative learning can give your team better retention, enhanced perspectives, and group accountability. 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 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. (This exercise should be voluntary; nobody should be forced to share if they are uncomfortable).
Collaborative learning has been shown to enhance participants’ openness to diversity by giving them the chance to interact with people with different backgrounds and perspectives meaningfully. As they move forward with their jobs, the shared training experience provides a new level of accountability toward maintaining the standards set forth during training.
Diversity training can not be a one-and-done activity. Instead, organizations should commit to an ongoing D&I education program that continually reinforces themes of inclusion and confronting biases.
In a meta-analysis of over 40 years of diversity training research, Bezrukova et al. 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 quite a bit of effort to overcome them. While even one 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.
To truly make an impact, training needs to be ongoing. Hearing that can be frustrating for companies that simply want to solve problems and move on. You don’t need to run the same course, or the same type of course, monthly, though. Instead of a single workshop, create a series of events: courses, a book club, an email drip, guest speakers, celebrations, etc. Or create 20-minute microlearning courses on different topics surrounding diversity and inclusion, and dole them out month over month.
While a good anti-bias and diversity training program benefits any company, it is not a stand-alone answer to correcting racial imbalances inside your company. Any training you roll out should coincide with a deep examination of how biases and structural racism play out inside your company.
Make diversity and inclusion key values, and incorporate them into your company’s structure, from hiring to employee onboarding to training and beyond. Stay up to date on current research and thinking on DE&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 and inclusive workspace.
Need help getting started or have better ideas for effective diversity training? Share your questions or thoughts in the comments below.