Most DEI Training Doesn't Work: Here's How to Tie Training to Impact
Could DEI training cause more harm than good?
Researchers have studied the effects of diversity training for years, and they’ve found a resounding theme: most DEI programs don’t work.
Positive effects, the research shows, don’t last beyond a day or two. And some training can have the opposite effect, causing backlash and activating biases.
In one study of more than 10,000 employees from a large global organization, researchers looked specifically at the effectiveness of one-hour diversity training courses that covered biases on gender identity, race, age and sexual orientation.
The results? They found very little evidence that diversity training affected the behavior of workers, especially men or white employees — the people who tend to have the most power in the workplace.
Yet, despite growing evidence that many diversity, equity and inclusion training programs don’t work, nearly half of all mid-size companies — and almost all Fortune 500 organizations — use it.
The Importance of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Diversity, equity and inclusion matter immensely. They’re the foundation for any business that wants to mirror its community and the outside world.
DEI initiatives, when done right, are tied to positive outcomes in the workplace.
Research covering 1,000 companies across 15 countries found that organizations with diverse talent are more profitable, and organizations that show diversity in gender identity and sexual orientation are 48% more likely to beat out non-diverse companies in terms of performance.
Deloitte argues, however, that diversity initiatives bring about more worthwhile results when coupled with inclusion.
The consultancy's research found that inclusive cultures — powered by inclusive leadership — are:
- 3 times more likely to be high-performing.
- 2 times more likely to meet or exceed financial targets.
- 6 times more likely to be innovative and agile.
- 8 times more likely to achieve better business outcomes.
Prioritizing a Diverse Workforce the Wrong Way
Many companies prioritize DEI, but the proportion of those that do it right is a different story.
Companies that treat DEI training as a one-off event — or don’t tie it to broader DEI strategies — are setting up their trainings to be ineffective, said Cynthia Owyoung, founder and CEO of Breaking Glass Forums and author of “All Are Welcome: How to Build a Real Workplace Culture of Inclusion That Delivers Results.”
“Relying on people to change their behaviors overnight because they took a 2-hour DEI training isn't realistic,” she said.
And according to Ingrid Wilson, a senior human resources executive and CHRO equity and inclusion strategist, as well as a contributor for Reworked, diversity training is often provided as a static product or service "without understanding the culture of the organization and where that organization is in terms of equity and inclusion," she said.
That doesn't mean DEI efforts don't work. It is possible to create a program that spurs real change. But it must be reinforced with systems, processes, accountability and rewards, said Owyoung, and continually and actively measured.
Related Article: Are You Developing Diverse Talent?
How to Measure DEI Efforts
A common mistake at many organizations is to put DEI training or initiatives in place without having a good system (or any system) for measuring the impact.
Some companies might use attendance or usage as a core metric, said Owyoung, but that number doesn't really matter. It proves people showed up but doesn't point to actual learning or change.
There are more worthwhile ways organizations can measure DEI efforts:
Tap Into the Power of Surveys
Owyoung said she likes to do pre- and post-training surveys to understand what behaviors were happening before DEI training and whether participants engaged in different behaviors after.
“It's good practice to do these surveys in a 360-degree way,” she said, “where you're not just asking the participant their thoughts, but their staff, peers and bosses on their perceptions of behaviors as well.”
She also recommends using different types of surveys, such as employee engagement and diversity climate surveys, to see if training is shifting perceptions of DEI.
“Cutting this data by demographic groups will also help you pinpoint whether DEI training is making a difference in their experiences,” Owyoung explained.
Look at Training-Specific Outcomes
Another tip from Owyoung is to look at outcomes specific to the DEI training.
Take, for instance, the example of a company that provides its recruitment staff inclusive interview training. As a result, she said, she’d want to see the percentage of hires from underrepresented groups go up.
“Or, if I've implemented bias in performance feedback training,” she said, “then I'd track whether performance rating distributions were equitable among different demographic groups and whether promotions were proportional to representation of different demographics.”
Don’t Forget About Employee Feedback
Data is helpful, but for some companies, it won't be representative or valid — like those with too few people to draw statistically significant conclusions or those where many people don’t self-identify their demographics.
In these cases, Owyoung said, “it's always good practice to round out your data with qualitative feedback from your employees.”
Questions you might ask employees include:
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What would happen if every member of your team came to work focused on finding solutions and creating better results?
- What was your key takeaway from the training?
- Are there more DEI conversations happening as a result of the training?
- Do you feel a higher comfort level among your peers in raising DEI topics?
“These are insights that can't necessarily be measured in a survey,” said Owyoung. “I would recommend collecting feedback after every major training program implementation and share how that feedback impacted future iterations and programs as you're rolling those out.”
Launch Cultural Assessments
Wilson supports the use of employee feedback, though not by itself but in conjunction with other measurements.
“The organization should use a combination of data and direct feedback from the organization's employees to get a holistic response as to the impact of the awareness sessions,” she said.
Metrics should indicate data, “but it also needs to leave room for the ‘feels’ — how people feel included or not within an organization,” she said.
One way she recommended gathering feedback is through cultural assessments. “This is more than the engagement surveys that are commonly used within organizations. This process requires targeted and intentional communication, intake sessions and listening sessions to build trust prior to launching cultural assessments."
Two more tips from Wilson: Don't just ask questions that require "yes" or "no" answers, and allow avenues for anonymous responses.
Related Article: Why Diversity Training Fails, and How to Make it Stick
Prioritizing Diversity From the Start
Companies have a lot of ground to cover when it comes to DEI topics: socioeconomic status, race, gender, sexual orientation and so much more. Progress has been slow, but it's still progress.
In 2021, a global survey found nearly half of of employees felt their organizations were diverse. Where those numbers start to fall is with diversity among team members and diversity among the organization’s leadership.
To get the most out of your DEI efforts from the start, Owyoung and Wilson offered a couple of tips.
Make DEI Training Interactive
Wilson said companies should make DEI training sessions interactive, including pre-training and follow-up for participants that’s reflective of specific actions.
The goal, she explained, is to embed inclusive programs and practices, as well as an understanding of equity and inclusion, into the organization, enhancing the organization’s journey of equity and inclusion.
“Everyone needs to understand the vision for equity and inclusion,” she said.
Seek Vendors With the Right Skills
Many organizations outsource their DEI training to an outside vendor. Owyoung recommends seeking out reputable vendors with knowledge of adult learning theory and a background in designing effective learning instruction.
“Always vet the content to make sure you understand it, that it supports the goals you're trying to reach, and you can prepare for whatever reactions you might get from participants,” she said.
Plus, she added, make sure it’s part of a comprehensive DEI strategy. You’ll still need a plan to support and reinforce training outcomes that you measure and iterate as needed.
Related Article: Is DEI Sustainable in the Workspace?
Measure DEI's Impact, Grow Diverse Teams
Diverse workplaces are a must for businesses that want to attract top talent, spark innovation, promote productivity and, above all, develop an environment that welcomes and nurtures each individual and experience.
Organizations need to take a serious look at their DEI training efforts and determine if they’re making the needed impact. Training needs to go beyond the classroom or computer and instead permeate the organization and tie into broader strategies.
By measuring the impact of your organization's DEI initiatives, you can determine if you're making a difference or need to rethink your approach.
About the Author
Michelle Hawley is an experienced journalist who specializes in reporting on the impact of technology on society. As a senior editor at Simpler Media Group and a reporter for CMSWire and Reworked, she provides in-depth coverage of a range of important topics including employee experience, leadership, customer experience, marketing and more. With an MFA in creative writing and background in inbound marketing, she offers unique insights on the topics of leadership, customer experience, marketing and employee experience. Michelle previously contributed to publications like The Press Enterprise and The Ladders. She currently resides in Pennsylvania with her two dogs.