Diversity and Inclusion: Learning Strategies That Actually Work

Executives aren’t shying away from the white-hot topic of diversity and inclusion (D&I). They are eager to tout their understanding that diversity drives innovation, creates a better customer experience and aligns with their company’s core values. But that’s just step 1. While hiring a diverse workforce is critical, the key to lasting results is creating a culture where people of all backgrounds feel included and psychologically safe to bring their authentic selves to work.

As Josh Bersin wrote in a 2019 article, “Nobody has a simple solution in place. Yes, companies now measure gender pay equity and work very hard to hire in an unbiased way, but implicit bias and historic bias is everywhere.” Getting diversity and inclusion right is clearly a daunting challenge from a training perspective.

Ditch Training?

More than 1,000 studies have attempted to address the simple question of whether diversity and inclusion training works. At the very least, experts are beginning to agree on what doesn’t work when it comes to D&I training. It turns out that mandatory diversity training aimed at reducing people’s biases or eliminating discriminatory behavior actually does more harm than good. Harvard Business Review laid out this challenge in its 2016 cover story “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” revealing that after implementing mandatory diversity training, companies saw a decrease in the numbers of several demographic groups — African American women and Asian American women and men — and no change among white women and other minority groups.

With full recognition that there is a lot that we need to improve, let’s move to what can work. What can begin to move the needle in terms of building a work culture of real inclusion?

Harvard University sociology professor Frank Dobbin’s research examining the effects of workplace diversity training has found that voluntary training has a significant positive effect on diversity and inclusion efforts. Basic human motivation science shows that people are more willing to get on board with a new idea when they feel they are in control of that decision — that they made a deliberate choice to examine their own biases and to consider new perspectives.

Language matters; even the word “training” has a ring of requirement attached to it. Consider reframing your company’s approach by creating diversity and inclusion learning offerings that people can see, hear, bump into and choose to attend. Here’s how.

Location, Location, Location

It matters when buying a house, and it matters when it comes to learning. Emil Faber’s “Pie of Knowledge” slices up everything we know into segments: things we know, things we know we don’t know and the most fascinating piece of pie — things we don’t know we don’t know. This third, somewhat elusive, piece is where the majority of D&I learning falls.

Imagine receiving an executive mandate to help employees become more aware of unconscious biases and how they impact decisions related to hiring, promoting and working. The very fact that people are relatively unaware of their biased thinking means they will never go searching in the learning management system (LMS) for information on how to overcome them. They probably won’t even Google it.

Learners must bump into the things they don’t know they don’t know. D&I learning moments make an impact when they are delivered seamlessly and regularly, as front page news on the company intranet, dropped into team feeds and included along with other important company communications. This approach empowers learners to discover and opt in to learning opportunities while also communicating organizational significance and leadership buy-in.

Offer Microlearning Moments

Serving up bite-sized learning aligns with how the human brain learns best. Done well, microlearning consists of short digestible moments that help spark reflection, conversation and connection with co-workers. Create your own, or look for content providers that offer customizable learning to align with your organization’s core values. Micro-topics like how to check your blind spots and the power of empathy help employees start thinking and talking about diversity and inclusion in way that mandatory D&I training never could.

Add Authentic Voices

The ultimate D&I achievement happens when all employees feel that they can bring their whole selves to work and are able to contribute fully to the organization. Start thinking of success as more of a journey than a destination. As a learning leader, you can speed up that journey by creating opportunities for members of underrepresented groups to share their unique perspectives with others. This informal human-to-human connection helps foster empathy and understanding organically. Create lunch-and-learns, and solicit volunteers to facilitate discussions on topics around inclusion, communication and cultural differences. Search for allies and upstanders — people who are not part of a minority group — to lend their voices to furthering inclusive conversations.

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