Traditional DEI Training Doesn’t Work Post-2020—But What Does?
Traditional DEI Training Doesn’t Work Post-2020—But What Does?

Traditional DEI Training Doesn’t Work Post-2020—But What Does?

Emotional Intelligence, Leadership Development, Diversity Equity & Inclusion   — 5 MIN


The verdict is in: Diverse teams come up with better, more innovative ideas, with a growing body of research showing that these groups produce measurably better output by drawing on the expertise of people from a wide range of backgrounds. Unfortunately, diverse and inclusive cultures do not materialize out of thin air—our unconscious biases tend to get in the way when left unchecked. That’s why many companies have implemented mandatory diversity training. But do these training programs work at a time when record numbers of employees work from home, and most learning is done via the internet?

Numerous studies are now suggesting that no, mandatory diversity training done the traditional way is not effective. Some suggest they are ineffective and have left many feeling a sense of DEI fatigue. Some go so far as to say that training programs are counterproductive to diversity efforts, and could even produce a kind of “diversity training backlash.”

The key phrase here is “mandatory diversity training done the traditional way.” What these studies show is that the problems with diversity training are well documented, and the typical approaches simply don’t—and can’t—work to address those problems.

So, what does work? 

A proven recipe for diversity and inclusion training

Professors David Pedulla and Devah Pager conducted a study bringing together subject matter experts from areas such as bias and technology to figure out how to spark lasting DEI change in the workplace. These are some of their main findings:

  1. Gather data and consistently analyze it.
    Researching and collecting data on diversity statistics over time and benchmarking them against other companies creates transparency and authenticity on where the organization has been and wants to go. Compiling this data also helps the organization make hiring and succession planning decisions, allowing leaders to see the diversity gaps within leadership positions and expand the external and internal talent pipelines.
  2. Utilize additional methods for reporting concerns.
    Many people who have filed discrimination or harassment claims fear retaliation or disciplinary action after reporting. This dynamic can lead to an underreporting of issues and gives the organization a false sense of its culture. Pedulla suggests bringing in a third-party system, such as an employee assistance plan, where employees can report matters to a confidential hotline that can provide them with resources and support as they navigate the next steps. 
  3. Screen technology to remove bias.
    Technology has simultaneously made life easier and more complicated. If a diverse team or data is lacking at the coding table, discrimination can exist within the software or device. Ensure that new technology gets properly vetted for potential bias and disparities before rolling it out company-wide. 
  4. Avoid falling prey to the constraint of small numbers.
    An additional factor that can hamper DEI efforts is othering and bias based on group size. Employees from underrepresented populations in the organization are more likely to be reviewed through a lens of stereotyping or tokenism. To combat this, ensure these employees can gain visibility through presenting to internal audiences or representing the organization at a conference or industry meeting. Creating an inclusive space to see these employees can help minimize the impact of these biases in decision-making and help position them for advancement opportunities.
  5. Include managers up-front.
    People leaders are invaluable resources for rolling out DEI initiatives. By gaining their feedback early on, executives can get a pulse check for how realistic and maintainable the strategy is for your day-to-day operations. Managers have a lot on their minds, especially as they try to maintain culture and resiliency with their hybrid and remote employees. Gain buy-in at all levels to increase the likelihood of efficient implementation and sustained culture change. 
To gain even more insight into what works for DEI post-2020, we must understand the limitations of traditional diversity and inclusion training. These limitations can usually be in one of two areas: A lack of understanding that cognitive biases are extremely difficult to remove and the failure to provide ongoing education. Fortunately, there are ways to address both.

The key to addressing cognitive bias: Focus on behaviors

The fact is, cognitive biases are difficult to address even if people receive training on them. A prime example of this is affinity bias, where we think that, since we're good at our jobs, people like us will also be good at their jobs. Given that historically business was dominated by white males, this deep-rooted bias has perpetuated this demographic skew in most sectors, at every level, generation after generation.

Reprogramming that system takes finesse. Confronting bias is difficult, especially since many cognitive biases encourage people to feel defensive, reject logic, and double down when challenged. It is exactly this sort of defensiveness that creates diversity training backlash, as employees feel they are being asked to change for a problem that, to their minds, does not exist.

That is why DEI Strategist Lily Zheng suggests positioning DEI initiatives and training on organizational change instead of changing individuals. She offers these strategies to reduce defensiveness and focus on implementing lasting culture and behavior change:

  1. Research the specific DEI inequities within your organization.
    Use qualitative and quantitative data to determine where inequities are across all areas of the employee experience. Utilizing both forms of data helps you determine the what, why, and how of these inequities.
  2. Market your initiatives from a system-focused framework.
    Position your initiatives as solving problems instead of shaming people. Framing the changes as improvements to policies, practices, and values helps to lower individual defensiveness and avoids singling out specific behaviors. 
  3. Center your corporate messaging around fairness.
    To avoid alienating groups, make sure your messaging and efforts highlight that DEI helps all groups and takes everyone to achieve results.
  4. Define and communicate DEI goals and expectations and provide ongoing support.
    Clearly outline timelines and accountability measures to ensure everyone is on the same page. Part of this effort also means providing support to employees on how they can meet these goals and resources to help them navigate these conversations with their teams.
  5. Celebrate wins and recognize progress.
    Make a point to highlight individuals making strides and achieving the DEI goals to celebrate progress and encourage others to engage. To maximize fairness, establish a consistent process for acknowledging these wins across all groups. 

The key to effective DEI programs: Continuous, reinforced education

Traditional racial diversity training, the forerunner of DEI initiatives, took a “one-and-done approach”—such as an afternoon training lecture that barely scratches the surface—believing that some DEI training is better than none. Transforming into a culture of diversity and inclusion takes time. Our brains have learned to operate a certain way over our entire life—this won’t change after one seminar. Instead, effective DE learning programs are continuous learning journeys.

Each phase of the journey delivers a new piece of information that builds on the last. Microlearning empowers companies to deliver long-term, ongoing education that helps create cultural change. A carefully curated learning journey with reinforcement allows for better understanding and retention. If employees can learn about cognitive biases at their convenience and in digestible steps, they are less likely to respond with defensiveness. By providing continuous, bite-sized learning through a learning partner like Blue Ocean Brain, companies can avoid the pitfalls of traditional training and better create a more diverse, inclusive, and high-performing workforce.

Final thought: Should diversity training be mandatory?

For many companies, diversity is both a value and an asset. And when that is the case, it makes sense for DEI programs to have diversity training be mandatory…or does it?

Making training mandatory can have the opposite of the intended effect. Again, defensiveness is an issue, and making the training mandatory can supply employees with the excuse that “I am here because I have to be here, not because I can learn something valuable or improve myself.” That, together with a lack of a sense of buy-in, can drive down engagement with DEI training across the board.

Again, this is where having a learning journey with microlearning content can be helpful. Instead of a one-off mandatory seminar, employees can self-direct their learning, focusing on bite-sized pieces of content that address their genuine questions and concerns. They can engage with the content on their own terms, so to speak, thus reducing some of the “backlash” often associated with traditional DEI training. And that will do more than any seminar can to build a truly inclusive culture.

For more information on how Blue Ocean Brain can help you build an inclusive culture, click here to schedule a consultation with one of our DEI learning experts.