2020 can be seen as the year when diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training was thrust sharply into the spotlight. The nationwide and international protests around George Floyd’s death sparked conversations and questions around racial inequality, inequity and systemic prejudice in the workplace. At the same time, employers were being confronted by the uncomfortable truth that their own organizations weren’t as diverse and equitable as they thought.

In the wake of this realization, companies scrambled to revamp, relaunch and refresh their DEI training initiatives. But after the flurry of training and talking points, a year later, it’s becoming evident that DEI training hasn’t delivered quite the punch that people expected. A recent Hack Future Lab survey found that only 34% leaders felt that DEI is a strength in the workplace. Clearly, DEI initiatives are still facing challenges, even though 93% survey respondents felt that it is impossible for an organization to thrive without DEI.

At the same time, as thousands of studies have shown, training alone isn’t going to convince people to change long-held or unconscious biases and prejudices. Instead, people often come out of training and forget the key points, while doubling down on their biases.

So how would you ensure that your company’s DEI plans actually deliver to its goals? After all, there’s clear evidence that a company that invests in and supports DEI actually perform better.

Here are five pointers that will help improve the effectiveness of your DEI initiatives:

1. Strong, Visible and Continued Commitment From the Top

A lack of vocal and visible commitment to building diversity and inclusivity is a key factor for where many initiatives falter. Having the chief executive officer and senior leaders driving the DEI agenda upfront and ensuring it is embedded in the company culture is a critical piece to a program’s success.

Employees will look to senior leadership to gain a sense of how the company truly values the underrepresented. Without this crucial ingredient, rolling out training and expecting employees to be engaged and demonstrate behavior or attitude changes is unrealistic.

Senior leadership should have open and regular communication on the progress against goals, invite feedback and input from employees, and reiterate through words and actions their commitment to building diverse and inclusive workplaces.

2. Back It Up With Company-wide Policies and Strategies

Building a diverse and inclusive culture needs actual action on the ground. According to one survey of Black professionals, 40% of people surveyed feel that leadership’s interest in DEI is more talk than action. This means an end-to-end infusion of DEI initiatives across the organization, from hiring and onboarding to training and performance appraisals.

The Fortune 500 Measure Up list provides insights of which companies are truly embodying DEI at all levels, by incorporating it deep within their business strategy and targets. Microsoft, which topped the 2021 list, has one of the best racial diversity metrics with 39.7% of the company’s board and 49.8% of its workforce being made up of racial or ethnic majorities.

The company is just one example of Fortune 500 and larger companies, who have recognized that DEI has to influence and drive business decisions for a company to be appreciated as an employer and to emerge as successful in the long run.

3. Make it Voluntary

With DEI training, you can say that forcing training onto employees does not work. Research has shown that companies that enforce mandatory diversity training actually end up with poorer representation than when they started off.

There is a strong case for making DEI training voluntary by allowing employees to choose to show up. This, of course, has to go hand-in-hand with training that emphasizes the positive impact of better representation, rather than highlighting the negative legal or workplace outcomes employees and the company could face.

When there is no “consequences” sword hanging over their heads, employees respond better to training, leading to an increase in representation. According to a recent study, voluntary diversity training resulted in a rise in representation from 9% to 13% in Black men, Hispanic men, and Asian American men and women in management five years out (with no decline in white or Black women).

This, of course, means that your training needs to have a strong “pull” factor in addition to a company culture that champions and demonstrates diversity and inclusivity.

4. Involve Underrepresented Groups in Creating and Reviewing Training

The senior leadership in companies continue to largely consist of heterosexual white men and women. As a result, developing training that truly voices the challenges and injustices faced by ethnic and gender minority groups is not easy. Which is why you should ensure that your training program truly resonates with minority groups, while helping bring about long-term changes in employee attitudes.

The solution: Build a diverse group of employees who contribute to the development of the training. Their contribution could be through helping create actual content, scenarios and case studies, participating in user acceptance testing (UAT), or helping evangelize and spread the word on the training.

Not only does this empower these groups and help them feel like equal participants in the initiative, it ensures that the training stays true to the organization’s DEI goals.

5. Build Manager Engagement and Accountability

While senior leadership can be the face of the DEI agenda, the actual on-ground implementers and drivers of the initiatives and goals are the people managers. Managers have a say in hiring, appraisals and most other areas that impact employees’ careers – having this group both accountable and engaged with the DEI agenda is critical. By putting managers in charge of implementing DEI goals and holding them accountable through transparent sharing of hiring, appraisal and promotion data, companies will see their representation and inclusivity numbers improve. This approach will extend to training, where managers can help promote the importance and benefits of DEI training.

In conclusion, companies need to relook at DEI as both a top-down approach, while adopting approaches helping employees feel engaged, heard, seen and valued. In the coming years, DEI initiatives will continue to occupy center-stage as global conversations around ethnic and gender identities continue to evolve.

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