Main content

Diversity training - a good start, but a truly inclusive organization needs more

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett August 20, 2020
Following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, diversity training has become a popular fix for all things diversity and inclusion. But is it enough?


In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, diversity training has become de rigueur.

Some employers are looking for a meaningful way to respond to the tragedy and the pain and anger it has unleashed by addressing employee demand for action, while others want to do something beyond making pledges on their website. Still others are genuinely keen to address their own lack of workforce diversity or mitigate the legal risk posed by discrimination and micro-aggressions towards members of minority groups.

But a report entitled ‘Diversity Management that works’ by the UK’s Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development at the end of last year has cast doubt on the impact of such training in fostering inclusive workplaces. While it found that awareness of issues, such as unconscious bias, could be enhanced, the training sometimes generated unintended consequences, which included actually increasing bias levels in some people.

In fact, the study said, there was little conclusive evidence of any sustained attitude or behavioural shift among staff as a result of such activity. This meant that, in and of itself, it was insufficient to create meaningful change. 

Instead, the report attested, ‘stronger levers’ were required to improve workplace practices. These levers include adopting a ‘perspective-taking’ approach, which involves encouraging employees to think about the discrimination faced by minority groups and to listen and reflect on their stories.

Sterling Grey, Vice President of Strategic Accounts at talent strategy consultancy The Chemistry Group, agrees:

Diversity training is an important piece of the puzzle if delivered effectively and it can have a positive impact, but it’s not a tonic or cure-all. Training isn’t very useful unless it’s helping to change the system, so you have to uncover where your bottlenecks are across the entire employee lifecycle. Most organisations’ numbers are pitiful in diversity and inclusion (D&I) terms, especially as you climb the pyramid. So it’s important to look at the structural issues and take an honest inventory of the organisation to see where glass and bamboo ceilings exist in order to unlock change. 

Shannon Collaer, Director of Talent and I&D at digital sales and marketing agency Clearlink, which is a Sykes company, takes a similar stance:

Diversity training isn’t enough for people to completely change attitude and behaviour. It’s a necessary starting point and it opens up the conversation by providing a shared language that helps people engage and understand the issues. But there’s no silver bullet and you really need a multi-pronged approach.

Taking a multi-pronged approach

As to what such a multi-pronged approach looks like, diversity, inclusion and equity advocate Perrine Farque says the first element involves providing the right context by basing training on real-life situations and examples rather than focusing on theory. It is also vital to explain why it is important to take action and to tie such action to actual business outcomes.

A second prong is about aiming the training at the right audience. In the first instance at least, this is the top leadership team as their actions and statements will be most effective in driving behavioural change throughout the wider organisation. As Collaer puts it:

You can see whether an organisation truly values D&I or not if you follow the money – in other words, if the executive team are willing to invest in the area.

Just as crucial though is that senior executives are held accountable for achieving agreed D&I aims that are linked to business goals.

Another key prong, meanwhile, involves setting up a taskforce, sponsored by the top team, in order to monitor, evaluate, measure and enhance the organisation’s D&I progress on an ongoing basis. But equally important, says Farque, is to:

Be clear about the fundamental reasons that you’re embarking on your D&I journey in the first place. Start with the why and how it will help, and articulate that in your mission statement.

Collaer, for one, is very clear about her aims at Clearlink, which employs more than 80% of its 2000 staff in Utah:

Looking at the historical demographics, we mostly operate in a racially homogenous state. Five years ago, our workforce consisted mostly of white males, but we’re now moving towards more gender equity and racial diversity because otherwise we’re missing out on the best talent. Our first benchmark is to reflect the demographics in Salt Lake Valley, but the next question is how to become a progressive employer by outrunning those benchmarks and creating an environment and value proposition where we’re seen as an employer of choice.

Weaving diversity and inclusion into the business 

In the area of gender, for example, the company has boosted the number of women in its workforce from 22% in 2016 – compared to the regional average of 44% - to 39% now, which includes a ratio of 35% on its leadership team.

But work is also underway to improve other forms of diversity too. To this end, the organisation has, for example, developed relationships with the local Black, Spanish and LGBTQ Chambers of Commerce, affinity groups and alumni organisations to ensure minority groups have access to every job advertised. Collaer explains: 

Traditionally underrepresented groups understand the barriers that are in place and so are more likely to leverage their alumni networks, which is why we try to plug into them to meet people where they are.

In a bid to make the recruitment process fairer, Collaer also introduced Textio’s bias decoding software earlier this year. The system provides feedback on the words and phrases used in recruitment adverts that are known to be off-putting in gender, age and disability terms. But as she says:

When you move towards neutral, inclusive language, it positively correlates with race too as you start speaking to a wider audience.

Other activities to ensure a more level playing field include regular calibration meetings to discuss any red flags, such as patterns relating to candidates not making it through certain stages of the recruitment process, and hiring managers being required to clarify how a candidate not deemed to be a ‘good culture fit’ failed to comply with the company’s core values. As Collaer says:

It’s about looking very intentionally at how we recruit and weaving equity, diversity and inclusion into everything we do. This isn’t a programme – it’s a commitment. So it’s not just about hiring diverse folks. You have to create an inclusive environment before you recruit diverse candidates because if you don’t support them effectively, they’ll leave. But it’s also about building your products from an accessible point of view too. So the way you get to your end goal is to weave equity and inclusion into the whole business.

My take

While introducing a spot of diversity training may appear as a quick fix to try and ensure everyone starts playing nicely, in reality, to create a truly inclusive and diverse organisation much, much more is required. As Collaer aptly puts it:

Diversity training is no silver bullet but it does make a dent. Doing things like recruiting with a D&I mind set makes a dent and aligning with diverse communities makes another dent. But ultimately it’s about looking at everything you’re doing through a D&I lens because, as someone said at a conference once, D&I is a long race with no finish. There’s always more to do.

A grey colored placeholder image