What Works in DEI Training?

Picture of Richard Smith
Richard Smith

Every employee has, at some point, sat through a lecture sponsored by his, her or their company. Usually, a speaker of note is engaged to bring awareness to how diversity can help the company achieve its goals and look like the customers it serves. The presentation may be powerful, and the message may resonate with employees. But if the next day it is just business as usual, what was the point?

Companies that commit to Diversity & Inclusion efforts generally incorporate training to introduce concepts and expected behavioral changes. When I’m contacted by an executive for help after his or her organization has completed an unsuccessful DEI training program, I always ask these two questions:

How does your culture support the diversity and inclusion training goals?

What was the training approach?

When a company isn’t seeing results, 95 percent of the time I find that the training curriculum exists in a vacuum within the company, without connections identified between culture and DEI aspirations, and that the training was speaker-based, without opportunities for participants to practice methods or approaches shared.

In this article, I’ll address the training approach. In short, it needs to be interactive. Lectures = passive listening. A Q&A may allow for some dialogue. But generally, these sessions go only one way: Experts talks. Employees listen.

Even if the speaker is a dynamo, employees minds’ wander to what work they should be doing instead. If they are part of the majority in their corporate culture, they may also fail to see how this pertains to them when they’re not required to explore or examine their environment or behaviors.

In my work with companies of all sizes, from small start-ups to Fortune 100 organizations, I’ve led employee modules that create change because they require engagement and offer tools to improve collaboration.

Non-Lecture Methods

Some of my favorite ways to lead training modules puts the emphasis not on me, but on the participants. By giving them tasks and scenarios to engage with while keeping focus on corporate objectives, I can make a big impact. Some companies start to see results immediately. Successful DEI training sessions I’ve designed/led have included:

  • Workshopping definitions of Diversity, Equality & Inclusion that work within the framework of company culture while challenging outdated practices.
  • Assessment centered (Decision Styles) workshops that bring awareness of the participants interpersonal decision-making styles and how they might affect diversity decisions, collaboration and innovation.
  • High-energy, in-person and virtual exercises that promote dialogue and challenge traditional notions of diversity while highlighting biases around trust, generational differences, communication styles and thinking preferences.
  • Using breakout rooms in virtual training to have smaller and more intimate group discussions. This enables participants to contribute, who might not typically speak up in a larger forum.
  • Incorporating live polling and video to illustrate and drive home key points of the presentation. This ensure that participants receive information in a variety of ways, and therefore covers multiple learning styles.
  • Web-based simulations in which participants must build a team from a pool of employees with differing demographics, skill sets, personalities and experience. The goal is to choose the right people to complete a task, learning strategic decision-making skills in the process.
  • Role-play of giving and receiving feedback to increase engagement and enhance two-way communication.

In all cases, participants come away with strategies and tools they can start using that same day. The goal of these sessions is not to check a box that diversity was addressed. Rather, these trainings approach identify and clarify ways for employees -with both visible and invisible dimensions of diversity – to work more effectively together as they pursue individual and organizational business goals.

In this way, DEI training experiences can become a valuable element of your organization’s culture of success.