3 Secrets For Modernizing Your Company's Diversity Training

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Diverse employees in a row

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Alex Wilson
Alex Wilson
Now more than ever before, diversity is recognized as an important part of every and any workplace. Diversity brings more ideas, perspectives and opportunities to one’s office. And yet, when it comes to teaching others about diversity at work, longstanding diversity training programs are significantly lacking. 
Sustainability and human capital expert Jennifer Gilhool explains that many diversity programs haven’t been updated for the modern workplace. “The diversity programs that were popular in 2007 remain popular today,” she writes on LinkedIn.  “These programs are, what I call, passive diversity programs. Little active engagement, if any, is required by organizational management.”
Management’s approach to diversity training is old-fashioned and, as many experts have noted, ineffective.  Creating an inclusive environment that celebrates diversity is an inclusive process that can’t be outsourced; doing this leads to a lack of accountability, and is ultimately a waste of time and resources.
Diversity training is important, but it must be done in an effective and impactful way. While there isn’t one perfect approach, there are some basics that can function as a foundation for a diversity training curriculum. Regardless of your organization’s focus and structure, these guidelines will help you create a more inclusive and diverse workplace.
1. Don’t “divide and conquer.”  
It’s important to recognize that different people view the world (and the workplace) differently. Separating employees by one or two identifiers (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) oversimplifies the problem. As Gilhool writes, “none of us is just one thing. We have many identity characteristics, including race and gender but also our health status, political and religious affiliations, relationship status and more…. Distilling a human being down to a single category is dehumanizing.”
Don’t separate trainees by demographics, and keep the human element in every aspect of training. Create diversity training sessions that encompass the many outlooks on diversity in the workplace. Understand that everyone is a combination of their experiences and that individuals are more than just what they look like.
2. Focus on the benefits.
Many dated diversity programs focus on the legal aspect of diversity hiring, a.k.a. the potential lawsuits a company could receive. Harvard sociologist and researcher Frank Dobbin says that focusing training on the hiring and firing of team members makes managers feel like they personally are the problem. 
“A lot of the diversity training for managers tends to be about the law,” Dobbin told Fast Company. “They take the message that the employer is trying to prevent them from getting sued.”
Instead, focus on what diversity brings to the workplace. Talk about your company’s diversity goals and why it’s important for the company to reach them. What will you gain by being more diverse? How will your diversity be better? Explaining the importance of these goals to your colleagues will get everyone on the same page faster.
3. Make it voluntary.
It sounds crazy, but hear us out.  Maximizing active participation in diversity training is important. “Active participation” means that the attendees actively contribute to the conversation; instead of just watching somebody click through a PowerPoint, attendees should ask questions and share their experiences. 
When diversity training is truly optional, employees feel better about taking the initiative to participate.  “Ironically, if you make it mandatory, training programs lead to decreases in the diversity of management teams,” Dobbin said. “If you force someone to go to something, they don’t have to try to make their beliefs and actions line up. [They] can think, ‘I’m only here because they forced me to do this.’”
A company that proved this successful? Google. Their voluntary training program on unconscious bias was attended by 60,000 employees, making it a success by their internal standards as well as those of corporate America. Google, along with several other companies, have a long way to go when it comes to improving diversity. You can help by looking at your company’s policies and using the above advice to make a positive impact.