Making D&I training stick

The importance of diversity training has risen, but how can firms ensure it's effective long term?

Diversity and inclusion have risen up the corporate agenda in recent years and the case for championing them within organisations is well-made. PwC research has found that 85% of CEOs whose companies have a D&I strategy believe it enhances business performance, while a study for US think tank Center for Talent Innovation makes a direct link between diversity and innovation.

Yet while appreciating the power of diversity is one thing, changing attitudes and practices to embed D&I within an organisation is quite another. A key approach many have now taken is diversity training. But it is far from easy to ensure that such initiatives have the desired impact.

Given that human bias is a deep-rooted trait, some academics have questioned the value of diversity training full stop. In her book What Works – Gender Equality by Design, professor Iris Bohnet of Harvard University asserts it is better to de-bias organisations than to focus on training individuals. An example of this approach, which Bohnet refers to as “behavioural design”, is removing applicants’ names from CVs as a means of nullifying conscious and subconscious bias.

Others feel training can play an important role but, crucially, must be supported by other activity. Siri Nomme, head of diversity and inclusion EMEA at international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, says that if delivered in isolation D&I training will not achieve the culture change companies are hoping for, nor will it fix inequality, discrimination, and poor decision-making about talent and business.

“A good D&I training approach can be very effective and will motivate participants to adopt behaviours that mitigate bias and empower individual diversity advocates within organisations,” she says. “However, these outcomes will only take an organisation so far; the impact of learning activities highly depends on the structures in place to support behavioural changes, thus helping ensure that the learning transfers back into the everyday working environment.”

A new study from the University at Buffalo School of Management has examined more than 40 years of research, combining data from 260 studies and more than 29,000 participants. It likewise found that diversity training is most effective when complemented by other diversity initiatives. Examples of such initiatives could be minority networking and recruitment or regular social functions, like potluck lunches celebrating different cultures. A key conclusion was that short-term, one-shot diversity programmes seldom deliver much impact.

“Quick-fix approaches don’t generally work, so an ongoing approach that is embedded into other diversity-related initiatives would ensure long-term change,” says Kate Bezrukova, associate professor of organization and human resources at the University at Buffalo School of Management.

Farrah Qureshi, CEO of D&I experts Global Diversity Practice, agrees that change is more effective when supported by non-training-based initiatives such as support networks. “Support networks that have clarity of purpose and are reciprocal in nature provide mutual benefit to both employee and employer. In relation to UB [unconscious bias] training, support networks are critical stakeholders in the process of designing and implementing any learning interventions.”

Such support networks, she elaborates, provide critical knowledge and experiential information that help in designing the best possible solution. Moreover, they can be excellent advocates and ambassadors for your goals.

So ultimately it is a commitment to consistently evaluate and innovate organisational processes – including the systems that allow for bias in the first place – that will perhaps have the most sustained impact on achieving diversity and inclusion goals. But what should the D&I training that forms a component of this overall system look like?

Jamie Dolkas, director of women’s leadership at the University of California’s Center for WorkLife Law, says that a focus on individual rather than systemic solutions is only one reason the traditional D&I training model falls short. Dolkas believes most organisations seek to remedy bias through programmes that are too narrowly focused; for example attempting to address a lack of women in leadership by focusing primarily on entry-level hiring while ignoring other key contributors to poor retention rates and lack of promotion.

In addition, there is a lack of accountability and goals. Most traditional initiatives lack clear metrics for how to measure success, and there’s “no assignment of responsibility or accountability” among leadership for actually achieving D&I outcomes, argues Dolkas.

Programmes should have a beginning but not necessarily an end, observes Amadeus IT Group’s global chief diversity officer Malek Nejjai. Simply providing non-mandatory D&I online training is not a recipe for success. It is often the case that when the words ‘diversity and inclusion’ are mentioned people get defensive and may be reluctant to participate in programmes.

Nomme agrees that D&I training can activate counter-productive feelings. To address this she recommends considering a title for the training that focuses on the “outcome”, such as better performance, innovation or engagement.

“D&I is a complex subject and has to be approached as such,” says Nejjai. “There is no right or wrong. But what is critical is to engage people with the cause and explain what is in it for them. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work as corporations and individuals are different.”

Rather, she adds, it’s essential to understand the challenges faced by the company and its workforce, design the right content, and then decide on the channel or combination of channels to best reach your audience.

NHS Employers head of equality, diversity and human rights, Paul Deemer agrees the importance of individualised, contextualised training. “Experience, and research, have taught us that the ‘sheep dip’ approach to training does not work, and can create entrenched resistance to change within an organisation,” he says. He singles out research specific to the healthcare sector from Riya George, PhD psychology researcher at the University of Leicester, that concludes that “diversity education should be focused on the nuances and dynamics of clinical relationships, where the influence of both the patient and the professional are acknowledged and explored”.

This is preferable, the argument goes, to giving training to all staff on a single subject that can be widely applied.

“We found that cognitive learning outcomes – gaining knowledge about other cultural traditions or specific non-verbal behaviours – tend to be ‘stickier’ and can even increase over time, so it would be effective to place emphasis on those lessons and outcomes,” advises Bezrukova.

Qureshi is quick to make clear that successful D&I training is about winning hearts and minds and connecting the dots between professional and personal mindsets and behaviours. “Often you are not pushing at an open door,” she says. “Part of the process may require challenging commonly-held views and perceptions.”