In today’s business environment, where everyone is asking for your time and energy, it is critical to narrow the focus to what will drive your business forward. Without question, successful companies have stressed the importance for an increased emphasis on diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives.

Why D&I?

Impactful D&I initiatives help companies attract and retain the most qualified talent, increase job satisfaction, foster innovation and create the potential for greater financial success. D&I is not only important to the C-suite; it’s also top of mind for job seekers and current employees. According to Glassdoor, 67% of job seekers say workplace diversity is an important factor when considering employment opportunities, and more than 50% of employees want their current organization to do more to increase diversity.

There is not one concrete definition for D&I, and every company approaches its D&I initiatives differently depending on its employee populations and business objectives. Advancing D&I initiatives requires leaders to adopt and implement a clear and focused plan for employees of all levels. Putting in the work to create the right plan and training procedures can make a measurable impact on promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace culture.

Before diving into specific training that leaders should consider implementing as part of their D&I initiative, let’s briefly review what D&I mean.

What Are Diversity and Inclusion?

Diversity encompasses a wide range of traits, including gender, ability and disability, race, age, and life experiences that employees bring to the workplace. Successfully maintaining a diverse workplace requires that leaders understand that everyone in their company, from the top brass to the cleaning crew, has a unique life story. Leaders should put effort into creating an environment that values these stories, values diverse thought and values every employee’s contribution equally.

Inclusion involves the degree to which employees feel accepted, safe, valued and respected at work. A company’s workforce may be diverse, but if employees don’t feel safe and encouraged to fully participate or make their voice heard within their company, then the organization lacks inclusion.

D&I Roadblock: Unconscious Bias

Vanderbilt University defines unconscious bias as “prejudice or unsupported judgments in favor of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair.” Everyone displays unconscious bias to some degree, both in their professional and their personal lives, often without even realizing it. For instance, when a person says something that isn’t offensive to him or her but is offensive to others, it may be due to unconscious bias.

As Howard Ross, founder and chief learning officer of Cook Ross, states, “Unconscious perceptions govern many of the most important decisions we make and have a profound effect on the lives of many people in many ways,” and “unconscious patterns can play out in ways that are so subtle they are hard to spot.” In a company setting with a diverse employee population, unconscious bias can derail D&I initiatives.

Solution: Unconscious Bias Training

Unconscious bias training gives employees of all levels the ability to identify their own bias and find ways to recognize and mitigate it in everyday interactions. Such training should teach employees how unconscious bias plays a part in their thoughts and decisions, how to recognize it, and how it impacts inclusion in the workplace. Unconscious bias training helps companies build cultures of inclusion that enable healthy, respectful dialogue among co-workers.

The first component of unconscious bias training is building awareness, which begins with a clear understanding of what unconscious bias is and how it affects decisions in the workplace. It is also helpful to give examples of unconscious bias in the workplace and settings where this bias is likely to occur.

Once employees are aware of unconscious bias, companies must strategically implement a plan of action. This plan should include skills for how to change habits that might lead to unconscious bias and teach best practices for actively promoting inclusion, whether through interactions with other employees or inclusive company meetings.

Unconscious bias training helps employees think about and commit to conscious decision-making, which ultimately encourages inclusive behaviors. It also helps employees feel valued, allowing them to “show up” and contribute to their company at a higher level.

D&I Roadblock: Harassment and Discrimination

One of the biggest obstacles to building a diverse and inclusive culture can be summed up in one word: fear. At the most basic level, employees must feel safe when they come to work every day. When they experience harassment or discrimination at work, they are often scared to report incidents because of fear of retaliation. In fact, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), nearly 75% of individuals never report harassment to their employer.

When employees are too scared to report bad behavior, it often keeps happening — and ongoing and unchecked harassment and discrimination will quickly erode a company’s D&I initiatives. Companies must mitigate the risk of bad behavior by creating cultures that encourage employees to speak up, especially when things are not going well. Creating an inclusive culture in this case starts with implementing proper harassment and discrimination training and then providing trustworthy, reliable reporting methods.

Solution: Harassment and Discrimination Training

When many people think of #MeToo movement, they recall the egregious acts of Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes, but everyday workplace harassment and discrimination is often more subtle. Harassment and discrimination training should begin by outlining which actions constitute harassment and discrimination, including examples that are tailored to specific workforces.

It is important that harassment and discrimination training occur at every level of a company. Not only is such training relevant for everyone, but support from the highest levels can help foster employee buy-in. The training should provide leaders and employees with awareness tools and prevention techniques. Companies can also implement training on workplace bullying, which is legally different than harassment but still negatively impacts D&I efforts.

Once leaders and employees understand what workplace harassment and discrimination are and have prevention techniques to employ, the next step is ensuring everyone at the company feels safe when reporting an incident. Managers who receive incident reports must receive proper training so they are able to handle investigations impartially, without delay and without retaliation toward the employee reporting the incident.

Some companies proactively opt to hire a third party to handle the reporting, investigation and resolution of harassment incidents in their entirety. This approach provides for complete impartiality during the investigation phase and helps employees feel they can make their voice heard without fear of retaliation. When employees feel safe and are confident that their company will handle their harassment and discrimination incidents with the utmost care, a diverse and inclusive culture can thrive.

Final Thoughts

Leaders know that for this training to impact D&I initiatives across their companies, it is important for everyone, starting at the top. The knowledge gained from training on unconscious bias, harassment and discrimination can help everyone within a company help create more diverse and inclusive interactions in their work environment.