Implementing Effective DEI Training: Avoiding Pitfalls and Achieving Desired Outcomes



Level D&I Solutions is aiming to address how Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion focused training sessions conducted by organizations sometimes have an opposite effect of what is intended. Around 72% of companies conduct some form of diversity training within their respective workplaces (Hite & Mc Donald, 2006, p. 365). Most organizations undertaking diversity initiatives conduct regular trainings focused on unconscious bias, anti-racism, cross-cultural awareness, sexism and other subjects focused around diversity, in the hopes of creating a more inclusive culture.


Due to several factors, including the mandatory nature of these courses and limited participation, some individuals come out with stronger biases and in severe cases, an aversion to working with their diverse counterparts all together. They express feelings of resentment for being “forced” to train on subjects they do not believe pertain to them and are defensive when addressing the topics at hand.


Our team has taken a deeper dive to find out more about the psychology behind the reinforced biases and stereotypes. We will be recommending strategies and solutions to employ moving forward to ensure DEI training meets the desired outcomes of the organization. This approach will take into account a much broader view into the definition of diversity, who should be participating in training sessions and be solutions-oriented to reach the ultimate goal; an inclusive and supportive work environment for all employees.


The Issue with Standard DEI Training

Companies of all shapes and sizes implement a variety of “off-the-shelf” training courses to managers and leadership in their organizations with no measurable progress in the journey to become more diverse and inclusive. Level D&I Solutions has found that the nature of these trainings inadvertently causes a divide amongst employees of different backgrounds. Based on the findings of our research, this seems to be the unfortunate result that many companies encounter when implementing trainings around race, gender, ethnicity and other sensitive and potentially divisive topics.


There are several areas where companies go wrong when implementing new training strategies focused around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Making training sessions mandatory, being reactive as opposed to proactive, focusing on legality and only offering trainings to a limited group of employees are among the most common mistakes made by more than 75% of organizations.


Mandatory Training

Mandatory training courses have failed before they even begin. In research from Dobbin and Kalev (2020) it is found that “force-feeding” diversity training actually activates biases in employees because people are natural rule-breakers trying to prove their autonomy. The mandatory approach to training makes individuals feel as if they are to blame for the lack of diversity or inclusivity in the organization and puts them on the defensive.


Mandatory trainings tend to focus on the negative of being non-diverse or non-inclusive which reinforces employee’s negative responses to the mandated trainings. This leads to the training having negative effects on the overall inclusiveness of the company, leading to higher turnover of diverse employees in the long run.



Reactive Training

DEI trainings are too often in response to litigation or a specific incident that takes place in the organization or the community. “Requiring employees to complete diversity training because the company has been sued or penalized by an enforcement agency undermines the importance of understanding diversity” (Mayhew, n.d.).


An example of reactive training that is extremely relevant today is the corporate response to the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the country and many other parts of the world. Companies that have not previously been intentional about addressing issues related to DEI in the workplace are creating mandatory training programs to show solidarity with the movement and protect their businesses from potential community backlash. While it is positive that the movement sparked workplace change, it also needs to be a process that will create lasting culture-shifts as opposed to a snap reaction that could have unplanned negative effects on workplace collaboration and retention.


Legality of DEI

The founders of Level D&I Solutions stated to 614startups that most companies and leaders seem to recognize that there is some undefined need for diversity; however, it has been a challenge to shift the mindset around D&I from being a way to check a box to maintain compliance, to a strategic investment and initiative for an organization. Diversity trainings that focus on compliance and legality do not inspire employees to be actively engaged in the sessions or implement the content they have learned. When employees perceive the training as an attempt to stay compliant and simply check off a box, they will usually be more resistant to the teachings.


DEI efforts should be focused on the genuine company interest in becoming an equitable and inclusive environment for employees of all backgrounds to inspire participation and buy-in across the organization. Headlining legality is an implied threat that will not be well-received by those participating in the training. This way of thinking also tends to focus on the traditional segments of diverse groups and does not include all potentially marginalized employees. Dimensions of diversity might include visible traits like age, gender, disability and ethnic background or invisible traits like socio economic status, marital status and sexual orientation.


Limited Participation

Only offering DEI training to managers and other individuals in leadership is another common mistake often made when implementing training programs. Singling out leaders in an organization makes them feel as if diversity is an arduous task that falls on their shoulders, which can lead to resistance in not only the coursework but also the implementation. It also fails to include diverse employees in the conversation. Unlike many other types of human resource development endeavors, diversity training has the added complexity of addressing not only the roots of organizational culture (inclusiveness of policies and practices), but also the values and attitudes of individual participants (their biases and fears).


Diverse representation in leadership is a struggle for the majority of companies. Leaving the perspectives of the majority of the diverse employees out of training can lead to a severe misunderstanding of the organization’s pain-points and inequities. In addition to ignoring a large portion of voices and perspectives in the company, this strategy also ignores the fact the injustice and discrimination do not only take place at the managerial level.


Training Strategies that Work

While a large number of DEI focused trainings fail, it is possible to execute a training strategy that is not only effective but creates a long-lasting culture-shift in an organization. When designing a training strategy, it is vital to reflect on the pain points and goals of the company, define what diversity means to you and how the training will reflect that meaning, make trainings voluntary, implement strategies proactively and choose the correct trainer or company to design and implement the coursework. Utilizing these proven strategies has enabled Level D&I Solutions to cultivate a fresh and innovative brand of training that creates sustainable growth and collaborative work-environments for our clients.


Research and Reflection

To create positive lasting effect with DEI trainings it is important to know the starting point and the ideal outcomes. Organizations with a defined mission and values have a solid foundation to build on. Companies that lack a clear mission need to start by defining it before they do anything else.


Beginning the process with an assessment and information-gathering phase can help gain insight into the pitfalls and grievances of employees while starting the process of self-reflection for individuals prior to participating in training. Free, anonymous tools like the Harvard Implicit Association Test can help individuals and companies start to measure the associations between concepts and stereotypes. Level D&I Solution’s HR Assessments and Cultural Alignment Surveys are also a great option because they dive-deeper into specific quantitative data and foster an anonymous platform for employees to voice their true opinions and concerns without fear of retaliation or retribution.


Broaden the Definition of Diversity

When defining diversity within an organization it is key to acknowledge that the definition goes beyond women and people of color. This way of thinking excludes large pockets of marginalized groups and undermines the purpose of hosting trainings. A study conducted by Chron states that there is a multigenerational workforce that have different needs in the workplace concerning work style, feedback from managers and career mobility. In addition to the generational diversity in the workplace, diverse cultures, sexual orientation and religious and political beliefs are worthy of discussion during diversity training sessions. At Level, our definition of diversity focuses on diversity of thought and includes, but is not limited to women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+, veterans, those who are differently-abled, class-migrants and those with criminal records.


Broadening the definition of diversity opens the dialog by including everyone in the discussion, even those who may traditionally be categorized as “non-diverse”. This can lead to trainings that shift the focus to cross-generational and cross-cultural relationship building, empathy and understanding. Trainings should aim to empower teams and individuals to come up with solutions and champion causes related to DEI by connecting them to the broader range of diversity that hits closer-to-home.


Voluntary Training

Company leadership may be concerned that having voluntary trainings will lead to a lack of participation. However, Level D&I Solutions has found that this is rarely the case when leaders in the organization voice their support for the program. A study by Human Resources Development International reinforces the value of upper-level support for successful diversity initiatives.

When employees make the choice to attend training sessions, challenge themselves to accept varying perspective and collaborate cross-culturally and generationally the results will make a lasting impact on an organization’s culture. Voluntary training leads to positive results when it comes to retention and promotion of diverse individuals in leadership as well.



Proactive Training

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion should be viewed as a revenue-generating, strategic business unit and prioritized as any other project or initiative would be. Teams with diverse and representative management earn 19% higher revenue than teams with low leadership diversity. Teams that have an equal representation of men and women earn 40% higher revenue than unbalanced teams. Teams that showcase ethnic diversity outperform non ethnically diverse teams by 35%.


DEI initiatives should be a focus for businesses long before they are necessitated by a social-pressures or legal issues. Not only will a company improve the bottom-line and foster a positive work environment, but it will shield itself from future issues related to inequities and discrimination.


Choosing the Trainer

The personality and interpersonal relationship skills of the diversity consultant or trainer are just as important as the training itself. Employees need to be engaged in the diversity education if any real change or awareness will be expected to take place. Trainers that run interactive sessions that take into account and work with the stories and diverse perspectives of the individuals partaking in the course are the most effective.


Trainers must also be sensitive and aware of the nuanced perspectives of various individuals and foster an inclusive, safe environment where everyone feels empowered to speak up. Level D&I Solutions has found that how an employee interprets the information gathered in the training will largely be based on the delivery from the trainer and less so from the content itself. With this in mind, our team has compiled a bench of energetic and passionate training professionals with a proven track-record of sustained success across organizations of all sizes. When designing a training plan for our clients we work hand-in-hand with internal leadership and the chosen trainer to come up with engaging content that fits the individual needs of the client.


Productive Discomfort

Level D&I Solutions will ensure cultural alignment through recurring employee engagement surveys, HR assessments and targeted trainings around Conflict Resolution, Unconscious Bias, Emotional Intelligence, Leadership Development, Sensitivity Training, Allyship, Defining DEI for Your Organization, and more. Our training services aim to foster “Productive Discomfort” and will encourage challenging dialog and stimulate growth in the following areas:

  • Cultural Identity

  • Defining diversity beyond gender and race

  • Benefits of maintaining a diverse and inclusive work environment

  • How to apply the concepts of DEI in daily interactions

  • Increasing awareness of unconscious bias and avoiding bias in recruiting and hiring

  • How civility, cultural competency and sensitivity can help avoid legal implications and other business issues

  • How positive interactions can lead to a more inclusive and healthy work environment

The aforementioned training sessions will be optional and open to all employees interested in learning more about DEI. These sessions will be facilitated by a certified Diversity and Inclusion professional whom the client will have input in selecting. The content is fully customizable and will be tailored based on the initial findings of the employee engagement survey and internal HR assessment.The implementation schedule for training services can be customized or follow the standard four-week- model.



Sessions can be purchased individually or in packages depending on the size of the organization and scope of the training needs. Pricing is competitive and varies based on the level of customization and the facilitation of services, i.e. virtual vs. in-person model. Sample pricing model:


The Productive Discomfort series of trainings was designed to foster a collective shift towards true equity and inclusivity by harnessing the power of each employee’s voice and perspective. If you would like to schedule an initial intake meeting to discuss specifics around your organization’s training needs please visit www.leveldi.com/contact.



References:

Brownlee, D. (2019, October 18). The Dangers Of Mistaking Diversity For Inclusion In The

Workplace. Retrieved October 7, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/danabrownlee/2019/09/15/the-dangers-of-mistaking-diversity-for-inclusion-in-the-workplace/#680b7c654d86

Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2020, June 15). Why Diversity Programs Fail. Retrieved July 10, 2020,

from https://hbr.org/2016/07/why-diversity-programs-fail

Hite, L. M., & Mc Donald, K. S. (2006). Diversity training pitfalls and possibilities: An exploration

of small and mid-size US organizations. Human Resource Development International9(3), 365–377. https://doi.org/10.1080/13678860600893565

Mayhew, R. (n.d.). Negative Impact of Diversity Training. Retrieved December 7, 2020, from

https://smallbusiness.chron.com/negative-impact-diversity-training-1849.html

Noon, M. (2017). Pointless Diversity Training: Unconscious Bias, New Racism and Agency. Work,

Employment and Society32(1), 198–209. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017017719841

O’Donnell, R. (2020, June 10). The Unintended Negative Effects of Diversity and Inclusion

Training (And How to Avoid Them). Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://www.zenefits.com/workest/the-adverse-effects-of-diversity-and-inclusion-training/

Patrick, B. E. W. A. C. (2020, June 26). 3 Requirements for a Diverse and Inclusive Culture.

Retrieved December 7, 2020, from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/242138/requirements-diverse-inclusive-culture.aspx


Harmon, E. (2020, May 6). Decoding Diversity & Inclusion: No Guilt or Anger Required. Retrieved July 26, 2020, from https://www.614startups.com/ohio-startup/news/2020/5/6/decoding-diversity-amp-inclusion-no-guilt-or-anger-necessary


Level D&I Solutions. (2020). Productive Discomfort [Illustration]. In www.leveldi.com.

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