colored crayons representing DEI training
Management & Mindset

Why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Training Fails and What Companies Can Do About It

At the time, 2020 felt like a turning point for workplace diversity.

Following the George Floyd and Stop AAPI Hate protests, thousands of corporations made diversity statements and increased funding to tackle related internal issues through diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs.

Yet three years later, progress has stalled. Job ads for DEI roles on Indeed fell by 19% in 2022 and corporations are shrinking their existing staff — particularly in the sluggish tech sector.

It's safe to say that the timing of these cutbacks is pretty poor. A vast majority of young Americans (84%) say that businesses should be investing in DEI. More importantly, 57% of all workers in a Pew Research study on the Great Resignation named "feeling disrespected at work" as one of the reasons for leaving their last job.

DEI programs are essential to both worker well-being and employee retention, but why does DEI training so often fail? Furthermore, what can you do to ensure that your DEI training program makes a meaningful contribution to your company culture?

Read on to start building better initiatives for your workplace. 

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What is DEI training?

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training aims to prevent discrimination and create more inclusive, positive workplaces.

DEI training typically works by building employee awareness of inequality and bias, educating them on the historical and cultural contexts of equality movements, and workshopping appropriate responses when employees witness or encounter problematic behavior.

Most frequently, DEI training is included in employee onboarding or delivered through workshops for existing employees. Here are some common types of DEI training:

  • Unconscious bias: Helps individuals identify and understand their own unconscious biases and suggests ways to address these predispositions
  • Allyship: Equips people with the knowledge and skills to advocate for those who face microaggressions and inequities 
  • Bystander communication: Teaches employees how to respond when they witness discriminatory behavior
  • Hiring and recruitment: DEI training that is specifically aimed at HR and recruitment professionals to promote equitable hiring practices by encouraging employees to think about how they source, screen, and interview job candidates

4 causes of DEI failure 

Though investing in DEI is never a waste of company time and resources, there are several reasons why DEI training programs can be ineffective.

Inequity is both a structural and cultural problem for most organizations, and to create lasting change you have to address these faulty foundations. 

However, in the rush to demonstrate that they're doing something about DEI, corporations often take approaches to DEI that are rushed, vague, or poorly funded.

As a result, DEI training often fails to produce the right results for the following reasons.

1. Too much emphasis on raising awareness

There's an old adage that recognizing a problem is the first step toward a solution.

But that's the first step, not the only step.

A common flaw with many DEI training programs is they help employees to identify unconscious biases, but then fail to provide actionable steps on how to address these biases. Focusing on awareness alone ignores the structural inequalities that sustain a discriminatory culture in the long run.

Without addressing these root causes, trainees are ill-equipped to create lasting change, even if they have learned something about themselves. Without clear steps for how to make change, participants may struggle to practice what they've learned. 

2. Marginalized employees are put on the spot

The main project of DEI training is to create an inclusive and equitable environment for all present and future employees.

However, in the race to create a more empathetic culture, instructors can easily single out marginalized employees or bring up sensitive topics without properly considering the well-being of everyone involved.

Identifying a DEI problem with a single employee can lead to tokenization, whereby marginalized employees are singled out to represent their entire group. Doing so can perpetuate stereotypes and create a hostile environment for marginalized employees.

3. A lack of diversity… in DEI

NBC recently reported that only 23.9% of chief diversity officers are people of color, and even where diversity leads are PoC, they often report to white HR managers.

A lack of diversity at the management level can adversely impact how DEI training is designed and implemented, as well as the budget officers have to work with. HR teams reflect the values that they instill in your company culture. So if they aren't diverse, equitable, and inclusive, you can't expect your DEI training programs to bear fruit.

4. People set goals, but they don't establish procedures 

Setting diversity goals and workshopping allyship are beneficial measures, but neither one can effectively address DEI issues without the right procedures to support it.

But that's exactly what many companies have tried to do since 2020. 

In a recent review of workplace diversity, 90% of US companies say they’ve set diversity goals. However, only 41% had a formal DEI policy, and 42% had a documented process for putting it into action.

Without the means to enact actual change across the organization, you're unlikely to create lasting impact.   

When you don't set processes for dealing with microaggressions, biased hiring practices, and other forms of workplace discrimination, your DEI strategy becomes focused on the individual. 

At best, that makes the strategy ineffective by ignoring the structural elements of workplace inequity. At worst, it creates a hostile environment for marginalized employees.

4 ways to build a more successful DEI strategy

For your DEI strategy to succeed, you need to set achievable goals, establish accessible protocols, and build equity into the structure of your organization. Here are four things to do as you adjust your approach to more impactful DEI.

1. Set clear goals and identify your metrics

As with any new strategy you implement, it's important to know where you're headed by identifying your performance indicators.

Your DEI goals will be specific to your organization and where you're at right now. Here are some examples of DEI goals that you might want to achieve:

  • Increasing diversity in the C-suite and management 
  • Improving employee satisfaction
  • Establishing solid SOPs for dealing with bias and discrimination 
  • Creating a more engaging, inclusive company culture

For your goals to be achievable (rather than just lofty statements), they should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound).

Aim for specific, quantifiable objectives that can propel you toward your DEI goals, and set metrics for assessing the performance of your various initiatives.

A few common DEI metrics include:

  • Diversity percentage in leadership: measured by demographics such as race, age, gender, ethnicity, languages, and disability
  • Employee retention: how many employees have remained with your company at the end of a given period, expressed as a percentage
  • Program engagement: employee engagement with your training and mentorship programs 
  • Employee feedback: how your employees feel about the company culture and its DEI initiatives

2. Raise awareness — and provide solutions

Sensitivity training is a valuable tool for improving your employees' general well-being, but only if you equip them with the procedures and protocols to address issues when they arise.

Make sure your DEI training includes specific, actionable strategies that workers can apply in the workplace. This could include ways to improve communication, address biases, and create more inclusive work environments.

To complement this approach, make sure employees have adequate support and resources to deal with any problems that they encounter. You want everyone to be involved in your DEI strategy, so it's important that employees know that it's not down to them alone to advance and uphold its values.

3. Lead by example

DEI should be a priority for your organization, so don't make it the sole responsibility of your employees.

Mandatory DEI training can create resentment among your employees if you just toss it in as part of the onboarding process.

Demonstrate that DEI is an essential part of your company culture by having managers and executives take an active role in initiatives and prioritize DEI in their practices. For example, you might consider integrating DEI training into leadership development at your company.

4. See DEI as part of a wider company project

Though DEI training is important, there should be more to your DEI strategy than training individual employees. 

To create an inclusive and equitable workplace, you need to first identify any structural bias that exists within your organization.

For example, what are your company's hiring practices and how does HR seek out potential candidates? If you've been hiring from institutions that are disproportionately white, male, or upper-middle class, then you're less likely to see significant changes in the makeup of your workforce — even if you're implementing affirmative DEI policies.

In addition to looking at specific operations, you should also think about how your organization operates as a whole. ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) is a useful framework for measuring ethical business practices that can help you consider your DEI goals from a holistic standpoint.

Specifically, ESG might encourage you to consider:

  • How your practices impact your organization's diversity and employees’ wellbeing
  • The social consequences of your SOPs and your business practices
  • How management makes decisions and how these impact employees and customers

Creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace is a continual process — one that requires continual growth at both the individual and organizational level. Taking a step back to assess how your company is structured and how it operates will help you identify new areas for improvement as both an employer and an organization, as well as identify any blind spots in your strategy.