Just as the #MeToo movement sparked a demand for new approaches to sexual harassment training, the recent social and racial justice movement has raised expectations for diversity training. While every organization is different, learning and development (L&D) leaders are recognizing the need for diversity training to provide relevant, engaging learning experiences that address topics ranging from combatting systemic racism to cultivating allyship.

L&D leaders also understand that diversity training isn’t a one-time event. It should be an ongoing, year-long program that is part of a multipronged strategy to improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Training should also be aligned with the organization’s values and woven into policies, practices, processes and operations.

A strong DEI culture benefits everyone and can result in more innovation, higher employee engagement and retention, improved decision making, and enhanced brand reputation. In a 2020 McKinsey report on workplace diversity found that “diverse teams are more innovative — stronger at anticipating shifts in consumer needs and consumption patterns that make new products and services possible, potentially generating a competitive edge.”   

By fostering a more inclusive and equitable workplace culture for employees at every level, diversity training can be a key component in DEI initiatives. Effective diversity training should:

Focus on behaviors

Key to raising awareness and changing attitudes is deepening learners’ understanding of the behaviors that help or hinder DEI. Behavior-based training focuses on what it means to think and act inclusively — whether interacting in-person, online or on the phone. Training should challenge learners’ decision-making with realistic scenarios that depict different aspects of inclusive and non-inclusive behaviors, showing that DEI goes beyond race and gender and encompasses abilities, age, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, veteran status, diversity of thought and other characteristics.

Ensure content is relevant, realistic and thought provoking

To motivate positive behaviors and engage learners, training should be relevant to their work environments and experiences. Tailoring content to the organization’s industry, culture and even specific job functions adds authenticity and relevancy — important factors in any DEI initiative. Integrating video storytelling is one of the most effective ways to foster emotional connections with learners by dramatizing how concepts play out in the real world. Video storytelling can be used throughout the year to complement ongoing training and DEI efforts. For example, sending out short videos on a specific topic – such as racial identity or the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on minority groups – to address employee concerns or situations that arise.

Given the evolving issues impacting the workplace, diversity training must evolve, too, to keep pace with changes inside and outside the organization. Further, as more training moves from onsite to online, employees want a high-quality mobile training experience that is available to them 24/7 on any device and in multiple languages.

Raise awareness of conscious and unconscious bias

Reducing bias has become one of the central issues to improving DEI. Everyone has biases — conscious and unconscious; it’s the way the brain works. While unconscious and implicit biases can’t be eliminated entirely, training helps individuals understand why these biases occur, how to recognize common forms of bias, and what they can do to manage and minimize these assumptions. If not actively managed, unconscious bias poses a serious barrier to DEI efforts and can lead to potentially discriminatory decisions regarding who to hire, promote or lead a project.

Address the nuances of microaggressions

Telling a Black coworker, “You’re so articulate,” or ignoring the ideas of women in meetings led by men are examples of microaggressions — subtle slights, snubs or insults that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages about someone based on their race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation or other characteristic. Whether intentional or unintentional, when microaggressions persist, people on the receiving end may feel judged, excluded, unwelcome and unsafe, which can affect their mental and physical health, engagement, morale, and overall productivity.

Through training, employees can learn how to recognize microaggressions and respond in constructive ways. The aim is to make employees more aware of and sensitive to the impact of microaggressions on members of marginalized groups – not to make people feel defensive or guilty.

Offer actionable insights on empathy, compassion and allyship

The current focus on soft skills corresponds with an emphasis on empathy, compassion and allyship to create a more welcoming, inclusive workplace. Training employees on the benefits of empathy and allyship reinforces the organization’s commitment to inclusion and employees’ psychological and physical well-being.

Especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to fuel feelings of isolation and burnout, allies can help foster a sense of belonging by checking in regularly with marginalized employees, listening to their concerns, and offering guidance on career growth and opportunities. Allyship can be expressed in many ways — from inviting different people to lunch or a virtual coffee break to speaking up against toxic behavior and having honest conversations about racism, discrimination and bias.

Survey learners

Along with tracking and analyzing data on DEI initiatives, surveying employees on their training experiences can provide valuable feedback and uncover other topics and issues to address in continued DEI-related efforts. Asking employees how they felt about the training and whether it answered their questions and provided actionable steps sends a message that the organization cares about their opinions and ideas.

Window into an evolving workplace

One of the challenges for L&D and human resources leaders in 2021 and beyond is making DEI training and other initiatives engaging and effective for a multicultural, multigenerational workforce. As part of a holistic strategy, and with the support of senior leadership, behavior-based diversity training opens a window to an evolving workplace culture in which marginalized and underrepresented groups are encouraged to participate, contribute, lead and succeed.