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Four diversity training methods that actually work

Diversity training is easy to get wrong. Here's how to build an effective program. 
Credit: Brian Lemen & Ana Kova; Image Sources: Unsplash, Adobe Stock, engel.ac, Siarhei

This year, 86% of financial executives reported expanding their budgets for DEI initiatives as recent social movements sparked a new demand for cultural diversity training programs across the U.S. While current events may have motivated more companies to begin offering diversity training, there are many compelling reasons to maintain these programs over time. 

According to an article from Forbes, corporations that invest in diversity training benefit from increased productivity, higher morale, and a greater sense of belonging. Employees that feel connected to their coworkers are also less likely to leave the company. Given the fact that replacing a salaried employee can cost the equivalent of six to nine months of their pay, boosting retention can significantly improve a company’s bottom line. Additionally, diversity training can reduce the risk of workplace harassment, leading to fewer discrimination and harassment claims. 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives directly impact an organization’s culture and financial success. However, there’s often a gap between diversity training programs and achieving a truly inclusive workplace. 

4 keys to effective diversity training in the workplace

Diversity training plays an important role in the success of any business, but it’s easy to get wrong. Below, we’ll share four research-backed methods to build an effective diversity training program. 

1. Offer freedom of choice 

Today’s workplaces are a hotbed of colliding ideas about DEI. This is partially due to generational differences — while Gen Z grew up surrounded by conversations about diversity and inclusion, the concept is still unfamiliar to some Baby Boomers who hold leadership positions in the workplace. Learning and development professionals are tasked with launching DEI initiatives in the thick of this tension, and that can lead to mixed results. 

A study titled “Ironic Effects of Antiprejudice Messages” found that participants who read anti-bias messages encouraging them to be more egalitarian displayed less prejudice after reading, but those who were told bias is “prohibited” tended to lash out. The takeaway? When people feel like ideas are being forced upon them, they often do the opposite of what they’re told. This poses the idea that for diversity training to be effective, employees need to feel as though they’re making their own decision to be more inclusive. 

How can you give learners freedom of choice, particularly when training is required? The solution revolves around offering options. Ask employees for their input on what training should consist of and allow them to choose topics of interest from a large library of content. Learning and development teams can also encourage employees to set their own personal goals around equity and inclusion. (More on this in #3).

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2. Make it easy to participate

Everyone has biases, no matter their age, race, gender, or sexual orientation. Because of this, all staff members can benefit from diversity training, including executive leadership. When leaders participate, it signals to others that DEI is an organizational imperative. To ensure that even the busiest employees can take part in diversity training, it’s important to make learning easily accessible and digestible. Many businesses are looking to e-learning as a solution. 

Online diversity training offers employees the flexibility to learn at their own pace, and is adaptable for both in-office and remote work environments. It doesn’t require employees to take hours off at a time — in fact, many offerings are designed so learners can tune in for a short period and then get right back to work. 

For example, the Big Think+ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion channel is full of bite-sized lessons from today’s most prominent thought leaders, like Claire Shipman and Steven Pinker, with topics ranging from unconscious bias to allyship. Since lessons are less than 10 minutes long, employees can learn on-the-go in between meetings or during their commute. 

Here’s a short clip from one of our most popular DEI lessons, “A Great Place to Work for All: A 21st-Century Framework for Diversity and Inclusion.” This lesson is taught by Michael C. Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work — the global research firm responsible for the FORTUNE 100 Best Companies to Work For list.

3. Encourage participants to set goals 

Building goal-setting into a diversity training program is another effective way to create lasting change. According to one study from the Journal of Business and Psychology, participants who set goals during a diversity training program were more likely to show supportive attitudes toward groups with different backgrounds than their own. 

Researchers from Harvard Business Review replicated this study with a group of undergraduate students and found similar results. When participants set challenging, yet achievable, goals around diversity and inclusion (such as committing to stand up for others when they hear a prejudiced comment, or expanding their social circle in the office to be more inclusive), they showed more “pro-diversity behaviors” after three months. This kind of specific and actionable goal-setting encourages participants to take charge of their own commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, which can reduce backlash and improve buy-in. 

4. Include perspective-taking exercises

According to a 2017 study published in Harvard Business Review, perspective-taking is one of the most effective ways to promote diversity. After working with more than 100 undergraduate students, researchers found that when participants wrote a short reflection imagining how a person from a different background might feel, they displayed more positive attitudes toward those groups. 

The effects of perspective-taking exercises lasted for more than eight months. On top of that, the activity often had a “crossover” effect across multiple populations. For example, if participants tried to understand the perspective of a person from the LGBTQ+ community, they would also show greater empathy toward people from ethnic minorities. 

Fostering inclusivity, one training at a time

Ensuring that diversity training is effective can be challenging, but research shows a strong majority of employees are just as invested in workplace inclusivity as learning and development professionals. 
In a 2021 survey from CNBC and SurveyMonkey, nearly 80% of workers said they want to work for a company that values diversity. By incorporating the most effective methods of diversity training, and collaborating with employees to offer learning experiences that meet their needs, L&D leaders can build a more inclusive future for all.

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