· Features

Are you doing diversity training right?

For real change to happen, the impetus has to permeate the whole organisation from the top down, says Hannah Jordan.

Type ‘workplace diversity training’ into Google and a seemingly unending list of options appears before you. Everything from comprehensive research, analysis and bespoke, evidence-driven training programmes down to speedy, online courses and ‘accreditation’ in equality and diversity.

It seems there’s something for every business, depending on how much equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is seen as a value driver by your top brass. Indeed, according to McKinsey’s Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters, the third instalment of the consultancy’s global workplace diversity study published in May, there is no doubt about the value of EDI.

Its data shows companies employing the most diverse leadership teams outperform those that are less diverse, in some cases by up to 36% profitability. And while many organisations are taking steps to address EDI, the question is are they doing it right?

Get it right:

Rethinking workplace diversity

Why discomfort is key to embracing diversity

Why now is not the time to scrap unconscious bias training

For some, unconscious bias training is a starting point, and for many others this is where their EDI journey also ends – but is it a useful investment?

Growing research into the efficacy of unconscious bias training, including a study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has shown that while it does raise awareness of individuals’ biases, it does little to nothing to change behaviour.

“Some literature suggests that unconscious bias training can encourage people not to engage with people from diverse/underrepresented groups... because they feel uncomfortable about how to handle diversity appropriately, and obviously that is the last thing one would hope to achieve,” says Emily Williams, academic lead for equality, diversity and inclusion at the University of Surrey.

It’s the reason, she says, that the institution is pushing beyond unconscious bias training and, in the area of race equality for example, moving towards more explicit training around the issues of power, privilege and structural inequality.

“Training should develop our understanding of white privilege and microaggressions, which are key parts of more subtle racism and understand how to be an ally and an active bystander, and therefore training programmes should be moving beyond just unconscious bias,” she explains.

“We are upskilling our staff in race literacy and developing new training in collaboration with Advance HE [Higher Education], making it very specific to our organisation and based on staff and student experiences. There is a focus on race equality at the moment, but EDI training should cover all protected characteristics.”

NHS Employers national programme manager, Mohamed Jogi, believes that though unconscious bias training has its place, it won’t root out discrimination on its own.

As part of its remit, NHS Employers delivers the diversity and inclusion partners programme to NHS Trusts, which helps them to improve and develop EDI practices over a 12-month period.

“Many NHS organisations currently use various forms of unconscious bias training to help them understand how their biases affect cognitive decision-making processes. It raises awareness of bias and triggers reflection, but we have realised that that is not enough, so it’s important to develop an action plan and develop accountability and monitoring,” he explains.

Jogi points to the new NHS People Plan, published in July 2020 by NHS England and NHS Improvement, which he says has EDI as its “golden thread”.

“It’s very much about a blended approach. The days when people were put in a classroom and taught about EDI are long gone,” he says.

While unconscious bias training can be a valuable tool for HR to counter bias in recruitment, selection and progression processes, Jogi adds that it is only useful as part of a wider strategy.

To really be effective, it needs to be supported by face-to-face and online training at different levels, staff networks for minority groups, webinars, round-table sessions, story-sharing and critically, commitment and ‘shop-floor’ contact with senior leadership.

So how better to invest your L&D budget to when it comes to an EDI pledge?


External, internal or a mixture of both?

ACAS senior advisor John Palmer says that before budgets are allocated to training, businesses must understand their own unique factors, for which monitoring, reporting and communications systems are vital.

“If you don’t have these, think about setting them up,” he says. “It’s also useful to encourage and engage with any EDI employee network groups you have. Don’t try to tackle everything at once.

“As with most things in the workplace, prioritise and address the most important needs first – just be open and transparent about reasoning so groups don’t feel overlooked and make sure the plan is going to cover a fuller range of EDI issues over the longer term.”

Palmer considers training as essential with a blend of external and internal, dependent on the organisation’s needs. This is echoed by Daniele Fiandaca, co-founder of culture change business, Utopia.

“Bringing in external parties is essential because it provides objectivity – it gives you a range of experience and opinions you wouldn’t have access to otherwise,” he says.

“But it’s important to balance that with internal training, because at the end of the day, it’s your business. The role of your external consultant is to facilitate thinking and help you reach solutions, not take over and tell you what the solutions must be.”

Fiandaca stresses that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, but that a common factor for developing EDI strategies is the need for a significant amount of culture change.

“You have to start with senior leadership. Always. D&I isn’t just HR’s domain. It works most effectively when the will and want is driven by the chief executive,” he explains.

“The best HR team is one that facilitates and works alongside senior leadership, so any processes, changes and learning are understood, supported and owned by the senior leadership team.”

He outlines seven key change areas that he says unlock meaningful change through a business: leadership, recruitment, culture, promotion, training, parenting and caregiving, and “the way you work”.

At seafood specialist John West a new EDI strategy is in development and the firm’s northern Europe commercial HRD Linda Mountford believes the right way to be investing is initially through third-party assessment and training, which she says brings an outside perspective and ensures that norms and teams can be respectfully challenged.

“Our EDI programme is currently in progress; however, we are starting by challenging our unconscious bias through an externally facilitated programme.

We will then move on to diversity and inclusion training for our executive team so that we are all aligned on what a diverse and inclusive organisation is and how we can influence and shape our culture and processes for the better,” Mountford says.

“Once we have identified and shaped our priorities, we will roll out a more extensive awareness and training programme across the entire organisation. Our HR team will play a key role ensuring our diversity and inclusion strategies are fully integrated across all HR processes from performance management to leadership assessment.”

Regular employee surveys, carried out internally or by a third party, and assessments of recruitment and retention metrics are also a critical component in identifying biases, she adds.

Conversation is key Insurance giant Aviva has a firmly established EDI strategy comprising multiple approaches.

The firm partners with management consultancy The Diversity Practice as well as employee research, data insight and culture change agency Karian & Box. These partnerships enable the firm to understand where any issues may be through regular employee feedback analysis. The firm also provides an appropriate mix of internal and external training.

Danny Harmer, the company’s chief people officer says that aside from these key investments, one of the most important elements of best EDI practice in the workplace may seem one of the smallest.

She says: “Give everyone permission and responsibility to be an EDI ambassador. If everyone looks at the world through that lens, you immediately improve your performance dramatically.

“We have six communities – AvivAbility, Aviva Balance, Aviva Carers, Aviva Generations, Aviva Origins and Aviva Pride – that look at EDI through different lenses and work together to support and raise issues. They’re part of our DNA.”

Founder of HR consultancy Caerus Executive, Frank Douglas, says employee experience is key and that to create a roadmap to successful EDI, leadership, HR policies, engagement and communication must all be tackled to form a tailored solution.

He says: “Be it racism, misogyny, homophobia – these are visceral issues. You cannot measure the emotional impact of those through quantitative surveys.

“In a quantitative survey, if you ask a question and get a 70% positive response you are happy, you don’t investigate deeply the 30%, which is why in our work we speak to the employees. That’s what you need to hear.”

Fiandaca agrees: “You’ve got to measure the right thing. A lot of businesses will pat themselves on the back at the fact they have a workforce that’s 87% engaged – but what about the 13% who aren’t? That’s who I’m interested in talking to.

“I’d love to see businesses moving towards exclusion surveys so they can understand the behaviours that exclude rather than include,” he says.

“The gender pay gap was a good start, but what about the ethnicity pay gap? A disability pay gap? A religion pay gap? We’re just scratching the surface.”


Not all about budgets

The key lies then not in one answer, one approach, and not just in where to invest the big money, but in creating a conversation, listening not just hearing. Sharing stories from top

to bottom and developing a culture of openness and trust is vital for organisations that really want to embrace EDI, and often the only investment needed for the most powerful impact is time.

Free unconscious bias tools such as the Harvard Implicit Association Test, for example, can be used as a scene-setter; workshops and blogs or online videos such as the Danish produced ‘All That We Share’ to start debates.

Shared internal events and celebratory stories; newsletters giving visibility to minority communities; using team meetings to deliver and reinforce messages, forming cross company knowledge sharing groups, the list goes on.

And this is without mentioning the countless not-for-profit organisations and charters with which businesses can partner, gaining access to invaluable EDI learning resources.

Diversity-based reverse mentoring programmes, such as that run by Aviva, again cost nothing but time. This has been proved to be an extremely powerful tool, says director and co-founder of the investment and savings industry focused Diversity Project, Jane Welsh.

She says that EDI should be a whole organisation approach, with investment and commitment from the top: “The organisations that are further on in their D&I maturity are seeing it as part of their strategy, their culture.

“It’s how they operate and everyone in the organisation, from top to bottom, has a responsibility for creating that inclusive culture. It doesn’t just sit with HR.

“But you have to keep on it,” she adds. “There is a danger of D&I fatigue with people thinking they’ve done it. Well, it’s not done, it’s an ongoing job.”