7 effective diversity training strategies — and why it matters

December 20, 2021 - 18 min read

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What is diversity training?

3 reasons why diversity training is important

4 types of diversity training

How to create effective diversity training

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Fostering a diverse and equitable workplace culture isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s good for your people, and it’s good for your business. At the same time, when we create truly inclusive cultures that encourage belonging for a diverse workforce, it’s also good for the communities where we live and the world. 

How do we achieve a more diverse, inclusive workplace? It isn’t just an HR or DEIB initiative. It’s everyone’s responsibility to foster a diverse and inclusive culture.

The data on diverse and inclusive workplaces speaks for itself. According to McKinsey & Company’s 2020 Diversity Wins report, diverse companies are more likely to be more profitable. In PwC’s Global Diversity & Inclusion Survey, 75% of respondents cite diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs as a priority. Yet only 4% say they are succeeding in key dimensions of successful DEI initiatives. 

It’s not enough that organizations consist of a diverse employee population. Employees need to feel that they are included and that they belong: in their role, on their teams, and in the organization. But a strong sense of inclusion and belonging seems elusive. Companies struggle with implementing programs that truly improve individual employees’ sense of belonging and inclusion in their day-to-day interactions.

Some organizations don’t know where to start. Other organizations may have implemented a formal diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program. But perhaps they don't know where to go from there. And the numbers suggest that for many companies, DEI programs have not changed the dynamic or the metrics as much as they would have hoped.

No matter what, diversity training alone, at least in the traditional sense of a couple of hours of classroom or virtual learning, cannot change the culture at any organization. Yet, a thoughtful diversity training program can help increase awareness, one piece of enabling a culture of inclusivity at any organization. Let’s dig into why diversity training is important, what types of training are available, and why it matters. 

What is diversity training? 

Diversity training will help educate employees on a few key topics: 

  • Awareness around workplace diversity issues. Examples include issues underrepresented minority groups face, gender gaps, microaggressions, and more 
  • Beliefs and challenges around unconscious bias and discrimination 
  • Help employees gain a deeper understanding of what motivates their colleagues and get a sense of how employees feel
  • Effective collaboration and communication skills to help improve diverse working relationships 
  • How to stand up to discrimination, racial bias, microaggressions, or more 
  • How to contribute to inclusive workplace culture and create an inclusive environment

In its diversity training, a company may also educate employees about the organization’s key demographics. It's a good opportunity to communicate the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.

A good training program includes peer discussion and support rather than a one-way push of information.

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3 reasons why diversity training is important

Chances are, you’ve worked with someone who doesn’t look like you — or has different backgrounds, different beliefs, or practices a different religion. Our differences are what make us all unique and offer a richer set of experiences and perspectives against any situation. The benefits of diversity are undeniable. 

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But sometimes, employees experience barriers to celebrating the differences or find that, despite the effort to bring diversity into the company, diverse experiences and ideas are ignored or quickly smoothed over once the hiring is done. As organizations grow their DEI efforts, it’s important to offer employees the right type of diversity training and support to ensure that DEI programs and learnings translate into a more inclusive environment in practice.

We’ve compiled three reasons why diversity training programs in the workplace have a positive impact. 

Increased employee engagement 

When people feel excluded, employee engagement suffers. We know from data that an engaged workforce outperforms a disengaged workforce. According to Gallup, a highly engaged workforce can outperform peers by 147% in earnings per share.

By implementing diversity training programs, your organization will foster inclusivity and increase overall employee engagement. 

Improved employee retention 

According to Forbes, shows that people who don’t feel included in the company’s structure and mission are less likely to invest the time and energy in the organization’s future.

Employees who feel a sense of belonging are more likely to stay with an organization. Diversity training programs help to increase that sense of belonging amongst employees — and overall, can help improve your retention rates

Positive systemic change

It’s no secret that our systems and existing power structures have been built for some — but they certainly don’t “work” for all. Diversity training’s first step is education and awareness.

But put into practice, diversity training defined broadly can help change things like your organization's hiring practices, where talent is sourced, actions to increase board or leadership diversity, and more. These actions positively change a system so it works for all people, not just some. 

A more engaged workforce increased employee retention, and lasting systemic change all contribute to the overall success of a company.

4 types of diversity training

Just like our diverse workplaces, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to diversity training programs. Diversity training programs come in all different types and can be catered to help achieve your organization’s goals. 

Awareness training

Oftentimes, awareness training is the type of early adopter diversity training that’s highly effective for most (if not all) workforces. Awareness training is essentially the first step to creating change in your organization. It gives employees an overview of the below: 

  • Workplace and/or organization demographics 
  • Education around sexual orientation, gender, race and racial minorities, ethnicity, and more 
  • Education and awareness around workplace equity
  • Many diversity trainings stop there, making people aware of their actions and how that is experienced by others. But this is a valuable opportunity to drive awareness of the benefits to everyone in the company of having a truly diverse workforce where people can contribute at their best

By implementing awareness training, team members will increase their problem-solving and decision-making skills. Through awareness training sessions, you can help shift to a belonging mindset — and promote respect, inclusivity, and value among your employees.

You’ll also lay the groundwork for the need for change and additional actions to come because your workforce is now educated and aware of the diversity issues at hand. 

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Skills-based diversity training 

Skills-based diversity training focuses on specific actions people at different levels across your workforce can take to practice the skills of inclusion to ensure all employees are equipped with practical skills that breed belonging. This type of training helps employees at the “awareness” stage move into a “proficiency” stage when handling diversity in the workplace. For example, skills-based training could include a session solely focused on communication and best practices. At the end of the session, employees will walk away with the communication skills needed to foster a culture of inclusivity in their work environment.

Diversity audits 

It’s important to understand where you’re starting to determine where you’re going. That’s where diversity audits come in. Diversity audits are regular “checkpoints” usually run by HR professionals — but it requires some significant training to do effectively. When done right, these audits help: 

  • Assess colleague relationships and work environment 
  • Manage employee attitudes toward coworkers and ensure that company policies are fully observed
  • Identify any type of discrimination 
  • Encourage employee transparency

It’s important to note that psychological safety will play a role in your organization’s diversity audits. Employees will only share feedback transparently if they feel safe to do so.

By opening up a platform for employees to share feedback in a safe space, your organization can learn from their experiences and make impactful changes. 

Basic diversity training 

We know sometimes, it’s best to start with the basics. Basic diversity training has a simple goal: create respect and empathy within your workforce. 

In a basic diversity training program, it’s common to find the below topics: 

  • Identifying company values — and how DEI embodies those values 
  • Anti-racism training
  • Anti-sexism training
  • Educating about sexual orientation and gender identities
  • Cultural sensitivity training
  • Human resource compliance training

How to create effective diversity training 

Regardless of what type of training(s) you choose to implement at your company, it has to be effective to truly make an impact. But how do you create effective diversity training? 

First, it’s important to understand where your organization falls in your DEI journey. Once you’ve figured out what work needs to be done and identified your top priorities, use some of these tips to ensure you’re delivering an effective diversity training programs to your employees. 

  • Be realistic about what you can accomplish. As we’ve said, being aware of where you’re starting is crucial. If you’re setting out to change your company’s culture with a diversity training program, you might want to think again. 

  • Set goals — and communicate them to your employees. Once you’ve established where your organization is on its DEI journey, set realistic goals. It could be as simple as setting a goal that 100% of employees take at least one diversity training course. Once you’ve determined your goals, communicate them. Studies show that accountability translates to better outcomes. 

  • Equip your employees with resources to reach your goals. It’s not enough to set goals and ask your employees to reach them. Company leaders need to equip employees with the resources to reach those goals. Having a portfolio of diversity training programs or encouraging employees to start employee resource groups (ERGs) are just some examples. 

  • Measure your progress — and report out how you’re doing. Similar to setting goals and communicating them out, it’s important to measure your progress. Employees aren’t going to be able to impact change if they don’t know how they’re doing. Share feedback with your teams on the company’s progress and ask for their support.  

  • Be OK with getting uncomfortable. Fostering a culture of belonging is not an easy journey. Uncomfortable, hard conversations will inevitably be had between peers and leaders. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s in these tough (yet respectful) conversations where real growth happens. 

  • Get everyone in the room. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, said in this How to Bust Bias at Work TED Talk: An important ingredient in effective bias training is not about what it teaches — but about who’s in the room. Although almost every major company has bias training, shockingly few send their top executives to it.”

    Creating a diverse and inclusive workplace culture is everyone’s responsibility. That means everyone in the organization needs to be a part of the training, regardless of where they fall in your organization’s hierarchical structure. 

  • Commit to the work. Implementing a diversity training program is not going to fix your DEI issues. It’s a great start, but to truly impact change, your organization will need to commit to the ongoing work. You might uncover more work as your organization moves through its diversity training programs — and that’s OK. Stay committed to the big picture.

At BetterUp we have found that really moving the needle — not just on diversity metrics but in creating a culture of inclusion and belonging where people of diverse backgrounds can thrive — requires ongoing supportive training for 3 groups: the employees from underrepresented groups, the managers of those employees, and the larger workforce (the ones who typically only get a couple hours of mandatory diversity training).

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Diversity training has so many benefits for any organization. Not only will companies see better overall performance that impacts their bottom line, but employees will be more engaged, happier, and more productive in their day-to-day duties.

Diversity training can also lead to increased collaboration, innovation, problem-solving, and success between peers. With effective training and commitment to the work, your employees will see the difference in their daily interactions. 

Diversity training isn’t just a box to check on your to-do list. It’s important to hold yourself accountable for your own growth. As McKinsey cites, bold change requires bold actions. Companies who are going above and beyond the standard one-and-done diversity training make inclusive leadership a core competency. The training programs are often the jumping-off point for companies to set meaningful goals that’ll help create a culture of belonging.

Take the lessons you’ve learned from diversity training programs and apply them to real-life situations at work. Like any other type of learning, it’s when those lessons are applied where real change can happen. 

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Published December 20, 2021

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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