Diversity training: how to guarantee it works

Diversity Training Course

Caroline Arnold is a Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, specialising in equality, diversity, and inclusion, as well as unconscious bias at EW Group.

After a year of protest and political discussion, diversity training is as hot a topic as ever in the UK workplace. As with any method of attitude or behaviour change, it’s earned its fair share of detractors. Add to this a body of research that proves the efficacy of diversity training as often as the opposite, and many voices are saying it doesn’t work.

In this guide, we examine the research and see whether diversity training does indeed work, explore the reasons why it can fail, and offer step-by-step instructions on how to implement diversity training in the workplace so it is guaranteed to make a real impact.

What is diversity training?

The purpose of diversity training is to fight discrimination and prejudice within an organisation, with the aim of allowing all people – irrespective of their diversity; ethnicity, gender, disability and so forth – to work together harmoniously and be able to equally benefit from the same opportunities.

Diversity training ranges from making sure a company is complying with its legal responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010, to greater, more progressive work designed to fight entrenched inequalities and exclusion, and improve employee wellbeing.

Is diversity training effective?

Like any business investment, many companies want to know whether the diversity training they are signing up to will be effective. And both leaders and staff will wonder whether the sessions they are completing are likely to have any measurable effect, especially since, after decades of diversity training, there still exists a fair degree of inequality in workplaces – such as the ethnicity pay gap, and gender inequality.

The answer is mixed. On the whole, diversity training works, but it is highly dependent on the type, quality, and frequency of training.

The type of training is key

A 2016 meta-evaluation of 40 years of diversity training evaluation research showed that the type of training was a predictor of effectiveness. The most effective types of programmes were training and cognitive learning, with the least being behavioural and attitudinal/affective learning.

Initially, the effects of the latter worked just as well as the former, but effects reduced over time. Conversely, the effectiveness of training and cognitive learning was seen to increase over time – a sure sign of success.

Overall, the evaluation found that training was more effective when combined with awareness and skills development diversity initiatives, included more women, and conducted over a long period of time, as opposed to one-off sessions.

It helps reduce discrimination

A 2010 multilevel analysis of the relationships between diversity training, ethnic discrimination and employee satisfaction found that, on the whole, diversity training can have a positive effect, especially when the prevalence of discrimination is taken into account; something that many studies evaluating effectiveness fail to account for. Organisations that publicly promoted diversity also saw less discrimination.

It improves engagement with diversity initiatives

Diversity training has been shown to help staff engage better with diversity initiatives. Research by American psychologists showed that staff who received the training reported they were significantly more able to successfully cope with initiatives. If staff feel like company strategies are being imposed on them without understanding their reasoning, they’re much more likely to push against them.

It changes women’s behaviour more than men’s

Other research shows a more mixed picture. In a Harvard Business Review study from 2019, researchers planned and ran a large-scale diversity training programme focused on attitude and behaviour change (the type least likely to be seen to work in the 2016 meta-evaluation).

They discovered that training increased support for diverse groups in the workplace and acknowledgement of discrimination, but that it had a negligible effect on men’s behaviour or that of Caucasian employees – the two groups arguably targeted most by training.

Interestingly, it changed women’s behaviour most; junior women employees sought out mentorship from male and female superiors to better their careers, seemingly spurred into action by increased knowledge of gender inequality and bias – and importantly, an understanding that diversity was no longer taboo within the organisation.

It doesn’t work when it’s forced

And writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2017, researchers found that policing against bias in the workplace – force-feeding people’s actions – resulted in them rebelling and becoming more biased. Instead of traditional command and control approaches, increasing contact between diverse groups, promoting accountability, and helping managers solve diversity issues were much more effective tactics.

Why diversity training doesn’t work

As with any programme, it’s crucial that diversity training is carried out properly, otherwise the whole initiative can end up a costly failure.

From the research, we can deduce the following reasons why diversity training doesn’t work:

  • Short-term – One-off sessions are unlikely to drive long-term change. It needs to be regularly delivered so it isn’t quickly forgotten.
  • Limited scope – If training is limited to a single session, or even a longer-term course of classroom sessions, its impact will be diminished compared to if it incorporated strategy, processes, hiring, performance evaluations – all areas that can hinder diversity in an organisation.
  • No senior buy-in – If leaders aren’t engaged in diversity training or don’t signal that the training is important, combatting discrimination will remain taboo and be stifled.
  • Incorrect methods – There is certainly a place in diversity training initiatives for awareness-focused training, but to truly engender behaviour change, deeper, cognitive approaches are most effective. What’s more, behaviour should never be policed.
  • No data If a business is unable to measure the impact of its training, it will find it difficult to improve future effectiveness or prove a return on investment.

All these failings are interconnected too. For instance, if there is no data and the benefit of training is unable to be tracked and assessed, then senior buy-in can falter and future initiatives can be limited in scope.

That means diversity training calls for a smart, holistic approach.

EW Group Consultants

How to implement diversity training in the workplace

Getting started with equality, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace can seem like a daunting prospect, but it need not be. There are clear, simple steps you can take to implement it and start enjoying the benefits of an inclusive workplace.

Start conversations with senior leaders

If you want to promote diversity and inclusion at work, in our experience, conversations are typically kicked off by a small number of committed and enthused individuals.

Whichever way you are starting out, the first challenge will be building momentum behind your vision for a more inclusive organisation, which usually involves recruiting at least one senior person who can help you to champion your work.

Having an individual that can promote your cause to the rest of the senior leadership is crucial when starting out. If any of your plans are to come to fruition and you are to deliver a change in workplace culture, you will need this group committed.

When it comes to approaching most senior leaders regarding equality, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace, there are two main drivers for getting behind your diversity and inclusion plans.

  • The business case – The specific commercial benefits to your business that greater diversity will afford. Citing specific statistics can be effective – such as McKinsey research that found ethnically diverse companies were 35% more likely to outperform non-diverse ones.
  • Personal perspective – It is likely you will already have a sense of which angles and topics will appeal to certain senior leaders most. Whether based on their interests, personalities or otherwise, this is where we suggest you start the conversation.

Determine the business case

Business cases for investment are determined by clear commercial benefits, but when we say commercial benefits, we don’t necessarily mean dollars and pounds – although there are certainly ways of showing how diversity and inclusion impacts your company’s bottom line.

Begin by posing this question: what is the main challenge your organisation faces?

  • If you wish to attract new clients, then your business case for diversity is going to be about understanding the potential clients in diverse groups who you are not already reaching.
  • If retaining existing clients is a priority, then you might want to consider the extent to which your employees reflect your customers, and therefore understand their needs.
  • If you want to improve work quality or innovation, then championing diversity within your organisation could be effective – Deloitte research shows diverse workplaces improve staff innovation by 83%.
  • If you have a talent shortfall in a particular part of the business, then your workplace diversity may be playing a key role; if you are unable to attract and recruit diverse talent, by default, you are not selecting your people from the largest possible talent pools available to you. A lack of diversity could also be hurting your brand in the eyes of prospective hires – according to PwC, 45% of men and 54% of women researched company D&I policies when deciding whether to accept a position.

These are all examples of business drivers for diversity and excellent starting points for conversations with the senior leaders in your organisation.

If possible, try to organise a facilitated conversation with your company’s senior leaders to explore the business cases specific to your organisation. All companies face different challenges and it’s important that your diversity work inextricably links to and resolves these issues.

Think of it as part of your future-proofing plan. What is your industry going to be like in five- or ten-years’ time? How can diversity and inclusion contribute to your sustainability and continued success as a business?

The benefit of getting the positioning right at this stage is that diversity and inclusion at work then becomes part of the fabric of your organisation; it’s woven into what you do because it makes business sense.

Equality and diversity qualification programmes can also support those with in-house diversity responsibilities to confidently articulate the business case for progressing D&I – learn more about the other benefits of gaining a diversity management qualification.

Tap into leaders’ personal motivations

Whatever level of seniority we hold within an organisation, we want to enjoy our work. A big part of that enjoyment comes from the relationships and rapport with our co-workers.

We all have different experiences of working life, and sadly that experience is not as positive for all of us. Conducting an employee engagement survey might shine a light on this, particularly if that data segments staff experiences by gender, age, ethnicity and so on. These insights can spark a personal response from senior staff, especially if they can relate to the staff experiences or are shocked by them.

Senior staff – often a little later in their working lives – might also be starting to think about their legacy. What contribution can they make now which will have a lasting impact on the people who work there? How would they like their time in the company to be remembered? Is being the top salesperson their most critical contribution, or are they interested in being known as someone who helped to create a great place to work?

At a deeper level, we can and should ask leaders some fundamental questions about how they want the working world to be like for their children and grandchildren. What sort of legacy are they leaving for future generations? Is an always-on culture what they want for them or are they more interested in an environment in which innovation, creativity, and personal fulfilment can flourish? Are they concerned that their daughters should have equal career progression opportunities to their sons?

Diversity and inclusion at work has a key part to play in these types of legacy conversations.

Collect diversity data

Leaders and managers will always be looking for evidence to back up your focus on equality, diversity, and inclusion, so data is key. We have already touched upon a few pieces of data you’ll want to have at your fingertips; engagement surveys and recruitment data can be great first ports of call.

Additionally, if you are a customer-facing business, then find out from your client managers what your customers are asking for:

  • Do they have any feedback to show that diversity and inclusion is on your clients’ radars?
  • Are your procurement teams getting feedback on how your diversity and inclusion performance stacks up in your bids and tenders?

See our guide to learn What is diversity data and how to collect it?

Run an audit

Once you have started the conversation and have some data to back up what you are saying. The next step is often to undertake a diversity diagnostic or audit – this is where EW Group often comes in, and many of our client relationships have started in this way.

We typically spend time analysing your current position in relation to diversity and inclusion in the workplace, providing you with a report to highlight what you’re doing well already. We then make recommendations about the steps you can take to move your organisational culture forwards.

Your diversity diagnostic needs to be entirely tailored to the needs of your organisation and the length of time spent doing it determined by the quantity and quality of the data and insights available. Usually, we spend some time helping you gather data – on career progression prospects for different groups, or how diverse groups are represented at different stages of your recruitment process, for example.

Once we have analysed this data, we’ll spend some time in your offices, speaking to a sample of employees. These are confidential one-to-one or small group conversations, and we would be seeking to gather new insights about how different groups experience the working culture. If you have specific gaps in your data or there are some assumptions from your data which we want to test, we can also do so during conversations with your staff.

Learn more about the benefits of a diversity audit and how to start one.

Act on your research

Typically, we create a report and recommendations for you, which we present to your senior leaders. If it’s relevant to your organisation, we can develop our report in collaboration with different internal stakeholder groups – such as your diversity steering group, if you have one – so that everyone who needs to feel they have ownership of the recommendations.

A process like this allows us to test these recommendations across different groups and for everyone to be confident that, by the time they are presented to the senior leadership, we know they will effectively work across a range of business contexts.

The conversation with the senior leaders regarding these recommendations is always a key step in achieving all the things have been covered in this mini-guide.

It’s an ideal opportunity to facilitate a discussion between them about the business case and their personal motivations, and it will ensure their buy in for whatever comes next by providing a solid evidence base. We often find that the personal stories we highlight from employees are unexpected to senior leaders and are a useful trigger for engaging both their hearts and their minds.

From there, it’s time for specific action. This is hugely dependent on the business, its situation, processes, and future plans, and the data and insights that have been collected. In essence, no two organisations are the same, so why should two diversity training programmes be?

At EW Group, our diversity training is interdisciplinary, taking into account all aspects of diversity. It’s delivered in a way that’s matched to the business’ specific challenges and priorities, and always designed so it has a significant, measurable effect over the long term.

Diversity training works. It just needs an expert hand to ensure it’s effective. If you want help from trusted experts in diversity and inclusion, contact ours today to find out how we can help.

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