Developing a Learning Culture

Why Diversity Training Doesn’t Work (and how to fix it)

why diversity training doesn't work
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Ah, mandatory diversity training. Everyone dreads it because it comes across as one of three ways:

  1. Much too harsh and confrontational.
  2. Extremely condescending.
  3. Completely out of touch.

Still, especially in our more diverse and empathetic culture, educating employees about their differences is a non-negotiable part of working as a team. 

Here’s the thing: If you have to make learning about diversity a mandatory event, there’s most likely already something deeply wrong with your workplace culture. Diversity training should never be an afternoon event that employees are forced to attend, but rather an organic process that starts from the day an employee is onboarded

Chances are that your diversity training needs a refresh. By tackling potential issues at their roots and looping in new voices, diversity becomes less of a one-time event and more of a part of your everyday culture and organization strengths.

Stop Making Diversity Training Mandatory

Traditionally, diversity training has been mandatory, stemming as a solution to historical disputes between tribes and countries, along with the increase of multinational business. 

Unfortunately, if someone is “supposed” to do something, however, psychology tells us that they are most likely going to resist. In short, diversity training doesn’t work when it’s forced on employees. 

It’s been proven that diversity has actually decreased when these trainings have been implemented. Ironically, diversity training can be detrimental to growing diversity. These findings come from a series of research papers by Kalev and Harvard’s Frank Dobbin that studied nearly 830 U.S. companies.

The opposite, however,  happens when we walk away from traditionally mandatory implementation.  When something is voluntary, you are indirectly giving learners the benefit and the respect in being able to make their own decisions on the topic.When you invite learners to become active participants in the training, whether it’s presenting on a topic or joining a round table discussion, you’re going even further to establish your organization as a place that values diversity. 

Different Diversity Angles

We usually think about diversity in terms of gender and race, but the current social landscape has highlighted a myriad of ways in which coworkers are different from one another. 

For one generation, it’s par for the course: Millennials have come of age in a globally connected society and are therefore more likely to accept and value diversity at work. In fact, a diverse workforce may have been one of the deciding factors in taking a job. 

At the same time, Gen Zers are entering the workforce, looking for collaborative opportunities, flexibility in their environment, and plenty of growth. Both generations are wealths of knowledge when it comes to reshaping the way your organization thinks about diversity; draw from their experiences as ask for their input whenever possible. 

Not all generations are as comfortable with celebrating differences, however. Baby boomers and Gen X-ers may not be as organically connected to a diverse landscape. It’s not that they actively push against diversity in the workplace; rather, they are simply unused to the idea and may naturally prefer to work with those most like themselves (called a micro-advantage which is an unconscious bias to gravitate toward those similar to us).

Creating a learning program that encompasses these new outlooks, and focuses on bringing our biases to the surface versus telling employees diversity is important is the first step to cultivating effective diversity learning. By getting younger and older generations to work and learn together, it’s possible to clear that first hurdle of diversity.

In Your (Human) Element

Employee diversity training can seem cold and calculated, especially when executed on a large or global scale. It’s all well and good to say that all types of coworkers can work together in harmony, but without an emotional connection or human element to the training, it will probably fall on deaf ears. Once leaving the classroom, not much will have changed and employees may find it easy to forget.

Coming off as “too corporate” is a surefire way to make sure employees ignore whatever you’re trying to say. Instead, incorporating things like personal stories and connecting with specific employee pain points can help drive the importance of diversity home without all of the stuffiness and corporate lingo. Skip the stock photography and opt for diverse illustrations and animations that show different types of people in different roles. They might seem like small tweaks, but they go the distance in proving that you’re dedicated to practicing as much as you preach.

People are affected by diversity (or a lack thereof) at work every day. Use their stories to your advantage and create an honest dialogue to which employees can actually connect.

Diversity isn’t a day-long event; it’s an organic, daily part of workplace culture. It’s not a topic to check off of a training checklist, nor is it always the most comfortable issue to talk about. By making diversity part of a regular conversation at work, the differences in race, gender, and generation become core strengths instead of divisive differences.