A global health crisis. A heightened awareness of systemic racism. The Great Reshuffle. Increased mental health concerns. The past two years have transformed how we work, learn and live, and have left even well-intentioned organizations struggling to support their people when they need it most.

It is during times like these when companies lean on learning and development (L&D) and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) leaders the most: They need timely programs and initiatives that offer employees support when, where and how they need it.

Unfortunately, L&D and DEI leaders are often siloed in different departments or functional areas. However, they share a common denominator: They both work to support and improve human performance and, as a result, improve business outcomes, said Tracy Salters, director of global L&D at American Airlines.

The need for DEI and L&D leaders to join forces and drive compelling employee value propositions has never been higher. At The Opal Group’s L&D and DE&I Executive Summit, I was fortunate to moderate a panel on this very topic, where industry experts including Salters, Cheryl DeSantis, chief people and diversity officer at SmileDirectClub and Jackie Parker, senior vice president of talent management and chief diversity officer at Global Payments, shared their insights.

Consider these three key takeaways from the panel, and how they will impact both L&D and DEI moving forward:

Takeaway No. 1) The Time to Innovate … Was Yesterday  

If L&D and DEI leaders haven’t yet rolled out new or updated programs to support employees, they’re already behind. Most of this innovation took place at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when remote learning skyrocketed and organizations looked to deliver wraparound support to employees. For example, at the start of the crisis, SmileDirectClub shifted their onboarding program online, and worked hard to ensure that new employees felt included and excited about their roles when going through the virtual program, DeSantis said.

At American Airlines, certain workers were furloughed at the beginning of COVID-19, and some workers’ roles shifted because they were designed to be customer facing but could no longer operate in a customer-facing capacity, Salters said. To help employees keep pace with these changes, American Airlines looked to L&D, which shifted its “prior learning paradigm” to include modalities that “fit the changing needs of the audience,” such as microlearning and text-based learning.

The time to innovate was yesterday, but don’t lose momentum: Even with pandemic-related challenges subsiding, remote and hybrid work are here to stay, and so is the emphasis employees are placing on DEI. Parker encouraged training leaders to innovate by assessing whether or not inclusion is “weaved throughout your content” and, if it’s not, to rework areas that could be more equitable. Even (seemingly) small changes, like offering training in a variety of formats, and considering employees’ time zones and geographies, can make your programs more equitable for all learners.

Of course, Parker said, “DEI should never be separated from what the company is trying to accomplish.” Thus, for an effective partnership, L&D and DEI leaders should rally around business goals and objectives.

Takeaway No. 2) Holistic Support Is Vital for Retention

A key theme throughout the summit was The Great Reshuffle, with both L&D and DEI leaders offering advice and solutions on how to retain top talent. Salters said that talent retention starts with senior leaders tuning in to the daily challenges lower-level employees are facing in (and outside of) their roles.

Too often, leaders are “oceans apart from the cry of team members and their everyday reality,” Parker said. Therefore, they are unable to provide timely support. Rather than waiting for employees to voice a concern, leaders should anticipate their needs and roll out programs and initiatives that can help proactively.

Even if you don’t have a substantial budget for employee wellness and well-being, DeSantis said you can still offer your people holistic support. For example, make sure that leaders are setting healthy boundaries (i.e., not sending emails outside of work hours, taking mental health days, etc.) so that their direct reports feel comfortable doing the same. It’s also important to train leaders on how to talk about mental health and well-being. After all, even if L&D and DEI leaders are comfortable having these conversations, leaders in other functions often aren’t. The solution? “Train them,” DeSantis said.

Takeaway No. 3) Get Comfortable Feeling Uncomfortable

We know that employees want to bring their whole selves to work. But often, they don’t feel like they have the permission to show up authentically because the culture isn’t psychologically safe enough for them to do so. It’s vital that L&D and DEI leaders (and leaders across all functional areas) “get comfortable with being uncomfortable” so that they can begin the hard work of deconstructing systemic racism in the workplace, Parker said. Often, this starts with “unpacking what it means to have your identity attached to privilege.” Training leaders to recognize their privilege, and how it has (or hasn’t) afforded them certain opportunities, is the first step in dismantling the obstacles that employees from underrepresented groups continue to face at work and beyond.

Unfortunately, many leaders still don’t want to talk about racial inequity and privilege because it’s uncomfortable, Parker said. Building a psychologically safe culture, and having these tough conversations in small group settings that allow people to learn and grow from each other, can help.

Driving equitable work and learning is a long-term commitment. Don’t get discouraged if progress comes in bits and pieces. Each conversation, and each “aha” moment, brings us closer to a more equitable future: Progress is progress.

Supporting and improving human performance isn’t easy, but when L&D and DEI leaders come together in support of driving change, there’s no telling what they can achieve.

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