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Why Diversity Training Fails, and How to Make it Stick

March 22, 2022 Learning and Development
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By Sarah Fister Gale

Many diversity training efforts fail, and the reason is simple: Some companies are treating diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as a stand-alone training topic instead of embedding it into every fiber of their culture.

“If unconscious bias training is treated as a ‘one and done’ activity, it’s a waste of money,” said Amanda McCalla-Leacy, global managing director of inclusion and diversity (I&D) at Accenture.

“To make an impact, I&D has to be integrated into your strategy, your leadership behavior and your messaging at every level,” she said.

Strategy First, Then Training

Sending employees to a once-a-year course on microaggressions or unconscious bias, for instance, is a mistake because DEI doesn’t occur in isolation. It is part of every interaction and decision a company makes, said Anise Wiley-Little, author of "Profitable Diversity: How Economic Inclusion Can Lead to Success," and former chief diversity officer for the Kellogg School of Management.

From recruiting and leadership, to how products are designed, internal processes implemented and vendors selected, DEI touches everything a company does.

“If you haven’t first built DEI into your corporate strategy, you won’t get the results that you want from DEI training,” Wiley-Little said.

Related Article: Unlocking the Benefits of Diversity in the Digital Workplace

Change Takes Time and Planning

Companies seeking to create an equitable culture have to first determine why they want to change — and what value it will bring to the organization, Wiley-Little said. It can, for instance, be about attracting talent or becoming a great place to work. It can also be about entering new markets, expanding the customer base or gaining a competitive advantage. DEI means something different to every business. To approach the topic with authenticity, leaders must define why it's important to the organization.

Then, they can make it part of the training culture, said Pamela Culpepper, co-founder of Have her Back, a DEI culture consultancy. She encourages HR and employee learning and development leaders to partner with a chief diversity officer (CDO) to figure out how to introduce DEI into every training conversation.

“Together, they can put a DEI lens on everything you do,” she said.

CDOs can also help L&D leaders and managers set realistic timelines for change. “DEI is a mindset, and people needed to be given the opportunity to build that skill,” Culpepper said. “It doesn’t just automatically happen.”

Related Article: Is Your Recruiting Algorithm Biased?

Just a Nudge Goes a Long Way in DEI

Transformation can be accelerated when trainees are given specific behaviors or activities to directly support DEI goals. For example, at Accenture, recruiters and managers are taught how to assess candidates without bias and given practical techniques for preventing it, such as assembling a diverse candidate list before starting the interview process, and interviewing diverse candidates first.

McCalla-Leacy said both of these techniques help eliminate systemic bias and improve the chances that diverse candidates will be selected. “Having a diverse slate before you begin interviewing is critical,” she said. Holding decision-makers accountable for achieving I&D goals as part of their performance appraisal also helps them to prioritize behavior change.

To encourage accountability, Accenture also teaches all leaders and employees to use “nudges” when they see non-inclusive behavior. For example, if someone observes a microaggression or a promotion pattern that shows potential bias, they are encouraged to point it out.

“Everyone is expected to speak up, which increases awareness,” McCalla-Leacy said, adding that nudges are intended to be educational rather than critical. “Anyone can make a mistake. This is how we hold each other accountable.”

Diversity training is a vital part of creating a diverse and inclusive culture, but it only makes an impact if it’s part of a broader transformation effort, Culpepper said. When CDOs are treated as partners by CHROs, L&D and the C-suite, they can help decision-makers look at everything they do through the lens of DEI.

“That’s how you influence behavior,” she said.

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