Despite a heightened awareness of systemic inequalities driving the demand for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training in the workplace, many studies have shown that it often has little impact on organizational culture change. This is because employers often treat DEI training as an event that employees have to suffer through — enroll, check the box and you’re done. That kind of exercise may satisfy an employer’s training attendance and even demonstrate rote compliance with some applicable legal requirements — but in no way is it satisfactory to help change engrained cultural practices.
If you look at instances when serious DEI and compliance issues have occurred, most often, it’s not because people didn’t know what they did was wrong. Instead, it’s because people ignored the ethical standard of what and what not to do or, on the other hand, assumed that because everyone has always done it this way, it must be okay.
Other team members who might have witnessed these wrongful practices may have failed to speak up and report it, feeling like either it’s too risky to their personal image or that nothing would be done if they did. In short, knowledge of right and wrong alone does not prevent noncompliant behaviors. Knowing when to speak up and report unethical misdoings does not make it easier or more likely that people will actually follow through.
For compliance training to contribute toward lasting culture change, it must do these three things: make learning meaningful, make the concepts and principles easy to understand and make training sustainable so that it will be long lasting.
1. Make It Meaningful
For compliance training to be meaningful, it must make it clear that behavioral standards are important to every person in the organization to adhere to, every day. Objectives for diversity and compliance training should be treated just as you would any other important business goal (e.g., profits, sales, quality and safety).
Leaders and team members at all levels must understand not only what behaviors are impactful to the organization, but how these behaviors affect their work as individuals and the people on their teams, thus influencing how the organization thrives or fails. In sum, key principles need to be discussed through the entire organization with the importance of social impact in mind.
2. Make It Easy to Understand
Compliance training should focus on a set number of core values and related behaviors, not the minute, academic intricacies of compliance law, to be effective. Often, organizations think that only professional experts — those who are lawyers or expert human resources (HR) professionals — should discuss these topics. But their terminology and approaches, while important, does not drive daily behavioral change.
If your organization is committed to operating in compliance with inclusive and equitable behavior in a welcoming environment, then the focus should be to identify core behaviors that contribute to those specific goals.
Think of it this way: Organizations in every industry have found ways to talk about core issues, like safety, sales and quality, in non-legal terms. So why not do the same with core values and behaviors? Explain how people are expected to behave in simple language, consistently.
3. Make It Sustainable
Compliance training must be sustainable. This means recognizing that one-and-done training sessions will not change longstanding cultural practices. Though these types of learning sessions are an important part of the equation, most of what we do on the job, we learn on the job, too. Compliance learning should have the same approach. Organizational leaders at all levels are in place not just to assign work but to make sure it is done in accordance with legal and company guidelines. If DEI initiatives are imperative to a company’s operations, as many studies indicate, then shouldn’t leaders be required to communicate and manage these vital principles as they would with other business objectives?
Consistent messaging has to be communicated by leadership in the context of day-to-day business discussions, not just in training. Make sure leaders at all levels know what to do in the moment when they witness a violation of compliance standards or if someone approaches them with a concern.
And don’t be reactive — keep the conversation going. Require teams to establish the practice of briefly and regularly talking about workplace behavioral issues, just like they would with other matters concerning the company. Ensure that the same measure of attention for imperative business expenditures is given to DEI initiatives and compliance training.
To foster cultural change, compliance training for DEI must be meaningful, easy to understand and sustainable with practices embedded in the daily work routine. A workplace that achieves these three goals can ensure that their organization will have long lasting cultural change.