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What companies are still getting wrong about DEI training (and how to fix it)

The right approach to bringing more diversity, equity, and inclusion to your company is to be thoughtful and create a plan that gets training right but also goes beyond training. Here’s where to start.

What companies are still getting wrong about DEI training (and how to fix it)
[Photo: Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock]
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Last week, Coca-Cola, whose Twitter bio is a simple and warm “Everyone welcome,” found itself at the center of a telling diversity-related crisis. For those who missed it: A set of problematic slides from one of its DEI training sessions, leaked by one of its employees, asked the company’s workers to be “less white“—with “white” equated to “oppressive,” “arrogant,” and “offensive,” among other things. As expected, Twitter went through the cycle of outrage, calls to boycott, and memes, which were followed by an explanation from Coca-Cola on how that content had found its way into their training in the first place.

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The dust seems to have settled on this incident for now, but the Coca-Cola slides are indicative of how a lot of companies are handling DEI issues—in a prescriptive, didactic way. This approach doesn’t actually get employees to reflect on their biases and blind spots in any meaningful way. No one can, or should, wake up one morning and “be less white,” but they can think about how their whiteness affords them privilege; how it helps sustain structures of oppression at work and outside of it; and how it impacts the way they interact with their colleagues. These are all big issues that can’t be addressed through a 90-minute training session alone (though that might be a good start).

In order to get this right, companies need to be thoughtful and create a plan that gets training right but also goes beyond training. Here’s how.

Step 1: Define the problem.

And then define it some more. In my time managing DEI at a communications firm, one of the most important lessons I learned is this: When you are addressing a problem that is as multifaceted as the human experience, you have to nail the “how” and “why” of each action you take. When choosing a DEI training, I’d recommend looking at the size, composition, and pain points of your current employee base, and starting there. Get specific: Do you want to make people aware of their unconscious biases? Are you trying to get more people of color to apply for open positions? Do you want to create an LGBTQ-friendly culture? It’s okay to have multiple goals as long as you’re approaching them in a tiered, focused way.
“People can see through vague,” says Jessica Brosnan, HR business partner at Capco, a management consultancy. “You have to rally your people to bring about meaningful change, so if you aren’t able to convince them of the ‘what’ and ‘why,’ you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

Step 2: Choose the right channel.

This will depend on your goal, among other factors, but it’s important to understand that training is but one tool in your arsenal and may not always be the right one. For example, it’s great if you want to buy an online course to deliver straightforward information on what constitutes sexual harassment. But if you want to encourage people to have difficult and vulnerable race-related conversations in the workplace—which is what I imagine Coca-Cola was trying to do—you may be better served by setting up a diverse working group and empowering them with a budget, autonomy, and psychological safety to launch a weekly workshop.

Relatedly, online training is a great option when you want to level the playing field of what Brosnan calls the two Cs of building an inclusive culture: confidence (i.e., knowing what is right and wrong) and competence (being able to discuss what is right and wrong). Employees will naturally fall on different points on both spectra, but a training course can help gather teams on one foundation of knowledge, which you can then build on.

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Step 3: Find ongoing ways to reflect on what you learn.

A training is just the beginning, but it’s often treated as an end, too. “Once completed through a third-party online program, it is not often thought of again until revisited the following year,” says Cat Graham, founder of Cheer Partners, an employee experience agency. “Leaders who are truly committed to building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment are responsible for follow-through.”

A few suggestions to ensure ongoing post-training reflection and behavior change:

  1. Start a club that comes together to discuss books or films related to the specific inequity or desired behaviors discussed in the training (e.g., being a PoC at work, or being a better ally).
  2. Allow people to share reflections and learnings related to the DEI focus (anonymously, if needed). This can be done via a company newsletter, a dedicated Slack channel, or—if they’re up for it—a few minutes in a team or company meeting. Hearing from their teammates will allow people to see and understand more of their lived experience and make the training session real in new ways. Note, however, that it is important to ensure that this opportunity to share is positioned and perceived as truly optional, so that the burden to educate does not fall on the shoulders of already marginalized groups.
  3. Empower your teams to reflect on these trainings in their manager one-to-ones, including what they learned, what didn’t sit well with them, and what behaviors they want to change. Managers are in a great position to ensure the long-term retention of such training content, and to source additional support for their teams, if that’s required.

Whatever your challenge, it doesn’t magically go away when everyone in your company receives their completion certificates—or even after. DEI work is ongoing and never-ending, but with the right approach and tactics, it can lead to immensely rewarding and rich work cultures.

Puneet Sandhu is a London-based writer, marketer and DEI executive.