The HR's Guide to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Training in the Workplace [2024]

Looking to start a DEI training program? Here's how to do it right.

When you took over as head of HR, one of your priorities was diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. You listed it as an objective for both moral and business reasons.

A few years into your tenure, you realize you’re not where you thought you’d be.

Your diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives were set on the back burner while your team focused on managing the talent shortage or overhauling employee benefits.

Now that you’re settled in your role, and you’ve got a team that believes in your strategic vision, you’ve decided it’s time to bring this to the forefront.

But now that it’s time to get to work, you’re a bit lost.

How do you get started?

Where do you get started?

How do you measure success?

And how do you ensure your work makes impactful change instead of just focusing on optics?

We’ve created a guide to getting started with diversity, equity and inclusion that will help you:

  • Clearly distinguish between diversity, equity and inclusion
  • Understand why inclusion in particular is important
  • Identify who within the organization is responsible for the success of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives (Hint: It’s not just human resources)
  • How to plan and execute on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives

What is the difference between diversity, equity and inclusion?

Companies often focus on the diversity component of diversity, equity and inclusion, but it’s important to understand all.

Diversity refers to the demographic differences in the workplace, like race or gender.

When companies focus on diversity, they tend to plan and carry out initiatives like:

  • Targeted recruitment campaigns (e.g. We want 40% of our tech roles to be occupied by women by 2021.)
  • Education and training (e.g. Sensitivity training for employees to learn what is and isn’t acceptable or politically correct)
  • Career development and mentorship opportunities that give underrepresented groups access to coaching opportunities

This focus on diversity has also served business objectives. A company with a diverse customer base may want a workforce that’s a reflection of the community it serves.

Nevertheless, focusing exclusively on diversity has a few drawbacks:

  • Targeted recruitment campaigns change the demographic composition of the workplace, but they don’t change the culture and mindset of a workplace that may not be hospitable to workers from underrepresented groups
  • Sensitivity training may not be taken seriously by employees or only be used as a reactive measure for employees who’ve acted inappropriately (at which point the damage has already been done to the affected colleagues)
  • Employees from underrepresented groups often feel excluded from information networks, making it difficult for them to convert their talent and work ethic into promotions and new opportunities

On the other hand, inclusion focuses on the culture, values, and attitudes of an organization, and how those factors affect an employee’s ability to thrive.

Quinetta M. Roberson writes that inclusion can be measured by a demographic’s ability to:

  • Access important information and resources within an organization
  • Benefit from involvement in special work groups
  • Have the opportunity to influence decision-making processes

Outside of success criteria, inclusion also refers to an individual’s ability to bring their “whole self” to work.

While there’s a clear boundary between what’s appropriate to discuss in professional environments, in the workplace people generally feel comfortable discussing what they did over the weekend with their significant other or talking about their Christmas plans.

But would an LGBTQ staff member feel comfortable discussing their weekend with their partner?

Would a Muslim man feel comfortable using his break to pray at work?

Would a female executive feel comfortable mentioning the fact that she comes in early and leaves early to pick up her kids from school?

These individuals’ comfort levels can be litmus tests for a company’s level of inclusion.

Ultimately, the goal of inclusion is to allow employees to realize their full potential and contribute to important decision-making processes within the organization.

As for equity, it is the process of ensuring that processes and programs are impartial, fair and provide equal possible outcomes for every individual.

In order to ensure equal possible outcomes for all individuals across the organization, equity requires that employers recognize barriers and advantages. This is the crucial difference between “equity” and “equality.”

Why is inclusion in particular important?

Why does inclusion matter so much? Aren’t diversity initiatives something to be proud of?

They certainly are, but one of the weaknesses of diversity initiatives is that they tend to proceed from a false assumption. That assumption is that diverse hires feel included from the moment they arrive.

It also takes a strictly numbers approach that fails to recognize nuance and company culture.

On the other hand, inclusion has all-around benefits.

On the surface, it does what diversity initiatives do by recruiting a more diverse demographic. But it also creates the conditions for that demographic to stay with the company.

A company that recruits 10 female engineers in year one, but loses 7 in year two isn’t that impressive from a diversity, equity and inclusion standpoint.

In addition, inclusion generates the full benefits of a diverse workforce.

As we mentioned earlier, diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t just a feel-good exercise – it’s an initiative that impacts the bottom line.

But before we can get into how it specifically impacts the bottom line, it’s important to understand the shift in paradigm that’s making initiatives focused on inclusion possible.

Two paradigms have dominated companies’ approach to diversity and inclusion:

  • Discrimination-and-fairness paradigm
  • Access-and-legitimacy paradigm

The discrimination-and-fairness paradigm focuses on the traditional approaches we discussed: equal opportunity, fair treatment, recruitment, and compliance.

The access-and-legitimacy paradigm focuses on matching the workplace’s demographics to the key consumer groups.

While both have been popular, a new paradigm has emerged: the learning-and-effectiveness paradigm.

This paradigm connects diversity to organizational strategy. In other words, listening to diversity and the benefits of diversity go beyond meeting quotas.

Rather, it plays a role in the company’s growth and success, whether that’s through more effective processes, better products, or more successful entry into new markets.

As Roberson puts it, the first two paradigms focus on assimilation while the emerging third paradigm focuses on integration and inclusion.

The business benefits of inclusion

Connecting the lessons and insights of diversity, equity and inclusion to business goals is a smart strategy.

An analysis conducted by the Wall Street Journal concluded that the most diverse companies outperform their peers in terms of operating results and share price.

One of the most cited reasons for outstanding performance due to diversity is the fact that companies with employees from diverse backgrounds bring fresh perspectives.

Unconscious bias leads managers to hire people like them.

A hiring manager may genuinely believe they focus on a candidate’s credentials and qualifications, but unconsciously favor candidates who speak like them, look like them, or have a similar background to them.

Plus, unconscious bias can cause what psychologists call the halo effect or the horns effect.

For example, if a hiring manager views a positive characteristic in a candidate (say, they went to the same school) then they view the rest of the candidate’s attributes as overly positive.

Conversely, if they view something as negative or unfamiliar, their overall impression of the candidate skews negative as well.

On the other hand, companies that can overcome unconscious biases and embrace inclusion obtain a competitive advantage.

A great way to understand how inclusion leads to better problem solving and innovation is to think of the ketchup problem.

If you asked most people in Canada or the United States where they kept their ketchup, they’d say, “The fridge”. But in some places, people keep their ketchup in the cupboard or pantry.

Now, let’s suppose you’re having a party and you run out of ketchup (the problem).

If you were to ask for a solution, your fridge users would instantly suggest an alternative like mayonnaise while the pantry users would suggest vinegar.

A person’s lived experience up until that point, for something as small as choosing a condiment, leads them to approach the problem in a different way.

A fridge person and a pantry person each offer a unique way of solving the problem and altogether, provide more solutions than expected.

Hiring non-native English speakers offers another interesting example of how diversity, equity and inclusion leads to better problem solving and innovation.

The languages we speak can influence how we view the world around us, generating more interesting insights.

People who speak different languages make different associations and access subconscious associations when solving complex problems.

Consider the English word “put”.

In English, “put” refers to placing something in a particular position.

But the German language provides specific words for those particular positions.

When a German speaker hears someone say “put”, they may think of legen (to lie horizontally), setzen (to make something sit), or stellen (to stand something vertically). These associations alter how they view a problem and therefore, how they come to a solution.

Research also shows that people who work in their second language (for instance, a German speaker working in an English language company) tend to make more rational decisions. They are not as susceptible to biases that affect decision making.

But as discussed earlier, these benefits can only be realized if companies focus on inclusion. In order to turn these various experiences and associations into big ideas, these individuals need to be at the decision-making table.

Procter & Gamble’s recent success underscores the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion.

In 2019, the company launched its Head and Shoulders Royal Oils Collection developed by a team of black scientists at P&G.

In 2017, it introduced a hair care line designed for black consumers called Pantene Gold Series.

The CEO credits P&G’s diverse teams as one of the reasons the company had great organic growth (growth not tied to acquisitions) in 2019.

Who is responsible for diversity, equity and inclusion?

Before we dive into specific diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, we have to answer an important question: Who is responsible for diversity, equity and inclusion?

The obvious answer is HR. That said, diversity, equity and inclusion is not just the HR director’s responsibility.

It’s also senior management’s responsibility.

Don’t underestimate how seriously reporting structures impact employee behavior. If an initiative or program isn’t championed or modeled by those at the top, it’s difficult for employees down the line to prioritize it.

On the other hand, if employees witness senior-level buy-in, they’re more likely to take such initiatives seriously.

This is especially important when it comes to employees with a high “social dominance orientation”. These individuals tend to be more resistant to DEI training, but they’re more likely to participate if there’s endorsement from an authority figure.

How do you plan and execute a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative?

Planning and executing a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative is not an overnight process.

This is especially true if your organization is starting from scratch.

Before you can implement any training for employees, you need to undergo a data-gathering mission to understand where your company stands, where the main issues are, and where your team should focus its efforts.

The Society for Human Resources Management outlines specific steps companies should take to develop a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative.

1. Compile and analyze demographic data within your organization

Your company may already have demographic data based on information employees voluntarily provided during the recruitment process. If not, you’ll need to use surveys to ask employees to voluntarily provide this information.

In some cases, employees may be uncomfortable disclosing specific information. While some may disclose visible demographics like race or gender, others may choose to hold back from providing non-visible demographic data like religion or sexual orientation.

An anonymous survey tool, like Sparkbay can help employees generate accurate data based on demographic while respecting employee wishes around anonymity.

Once you have this information, break it down by department and employee level. This allows you to quickly determine where there’s the least amount of representation within your company.

For instance, the data may show that your engineering team consists of 95% men or your senior management team has no people of color.

This allows you to identify priority areas of focus.

2. Investigate whether there’s a disconnect between company culture and the ideas of diversity, equity and inclusion

Earlier we discussed that in a diverse but non-inclusive culture, an LGBT employee may not feel comfortable talking about their partner at work or a Muslim employee may not pray at work for fear of being othered by their employees.

These feelings demonstrate that your current company culture does not make employees feel comfortable being their true selves at work.

This may be because of offhand comments or the personal views and opinions of managers being shared within the workplace.

Within a culture like this, employees typically aren’t comfortable sharing their sexual orientation, religion, or even race in a survey.

This presents a conundrum for your data-gathering efforts. It makes it hard to determine if specific groups don’t feel comfortable within your organization or if those groups don’t exist in your company at all.

You can try to tell the difference by making the most of your employee surveys.

For instance, in addition to asking employees to choose whether they identify as a person of color or a member of the LGBT community, you can include an option that says, “I don’t feel comfortable specifying”.

You can also include a follow-up question that asks why they don’t feel comfortable specifying and that response can either be multiple choice, free text, or both.

3. Review existing policies, programs, and practices that may be affecting workplace diversity

Conduct an audit of your existing policies and practices to see if they’re contributing to less than satisfactory survey numbers.

For instance, employee referral programs, as useful as they can be, may contribute to widespread unconscious bias within your organization. On the one hand, employee referral programs allow companies to benefit from the network of their best employees.

But it also means that the organization tends to hire more of the same people from the same schools and with similar experience.

Sometimes, the answer is tweaking your existing programs or policies rather than eliminating them altogether. For example, when Google extended its paid parental leave policy from 12 weeks to 18 weeks, the rate at which new mothers quit was cut in half.

4. Establish diversity, equity and inclusion objectives that tie into the company’s business objectives

Avoid making diversity, equity and inclusion a cosmetic objective. Instead, tie it to important company objectives.

When the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs set the business goal, “Make VA a place where people want to serve”, it established key performance indicators to measure its success in meeting that goal.

One of those KPIs was improving the diversity index, so they could better serve the diverse population of people who access VA services.

5. Secure senior-level buy-in to ensure the success of your diversity initiative

Securing senior level buy-in is critical to ensuring your company’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Earlier, we discussed the importance of buy in for isolated DEI training programs.

Employees who are resistant to DEI training need senior-level buy in to take these programs seriously.

The same idea applies to enterprise-wide diversity initiatives. And this isn’t just for the cultural or demographic majority within the organization.

Senior-level buy-in is also important for underrepresented groups to take diversity initiatives seriously.

If underrepresented groups believe a diversity, equity and inclusion program is purely cosmetic, they are going to feel less inclined to participate.

Senior level buy-in includes active communication from managers to teams about the importance of these initiatives or executives serving as mentors and providing regular, one-on-one coaching sessions or meetings with mentees.

This also means affecting real change in the form of promotions, resources, and opportunities.

There have been several examples of executives leading by example.

For instance, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff publicly tweeted his opposition to legislation he deemed discriminatory to the LGBT community.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson refused to fill a leadership position until there were more diverse nominees to choose from.

6. Design and implement your most urgent DEI training initiatives

Once you’ve determined a specific objective – for example, getting more women into leadership roles – it’s time to roll out your programs.

Choose a specific objective tied to a business goal. For instance:

  • “We want to increase the number of women in leadership positions by 20% within 5 years” or
  • “We want to increase the number of women in tech roles by 30% within the next 3 years”

If you’ve followed the previous steps, you know what programs or policies may be holding you back.

Perhaps your company overwhelmingly favors external candidates for leadership positions.

Maybe the reason for there aren’t so many women on your engineering teams is a matter of retention rather than recruitment.

These insights inform how you structure your project. Consider the following examples of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Promoting underrepresented candidates within the organization

Companies can perpetuate the trend of hiring the same people by relying on external networks. Executive recruiters focus on luring VPs and managers from other companies. This continues the practice of favoring candidates that reflect the status quo.

One way that companies can create an inclusive work environment is promoting candidates within the organization. This encourages leaders to take a look at their existing workforce and give underrepresented groups a seat at the table.

As a result, nearly 87% of their female executives were promoted from within the company. Furthermore, 18% of them started at the company from within a Gap store.

Encouraging current executives to coach the next generation of company leaders

Another roadblock employees from historically underrepresented groups face is lack of access to information networks, as discussed earlier.

Conversations with HR about career progression are formal and don’t offer the same kind of informal, social data that others may receive through mentorship or working on special projects.

Giving employees mentorship and coaching opportunities from leaders within the company is one way to help them climb the corporate ladder and make a meaningful contribution to the organization.

Staples requires its senior vice presidents to sponsor “high-potential female talent” for leadership positions.

Organizing perspective-taking training exercises

If you prefer to organize formal training programs, consider organizing perspective-taking DEI training sessions.

This kind of program encourages employees to “walk in another employee’s shoes”. Participants write a few lines describing the challenges a racial minority or an LGBT individual might face within the workplace.

In one experiment, perspective-taking exercises produced a cross-over effect where empathizing with one underrepresented group allowed employees to consider the lived experiences of other underrepresented groups.

7. Organize goal-setting programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion

Another effective DEI training initiative is goal setting. Trainers ask employees to set a SMART goal related to diversity, equity and inclusion. For instance, their goal may be to speak up the next time they hear a colleague make an inappropriate comment.

This focuses on changing behavior, not just changing attitudes.

Once you’ve selected your program, create clear KPIs (e.g. number of people who sign up for the program, number of people who graduate from the program) to keep your project team accountable.

Your program needs metrics and deadlines to create real change.

Plus, you’ll need to create a comprehensive communication plan so everyone who can benefit from your initiative knows about it.

This includes asking managers to communicate details to your team, sending out scheduled emails, and including details on your company’s intranet.

Measure your program, share its success, and consider lessons learned

Measure the outcomes of your program.

If you’re not meeting KPIs, regroup and consider what factors are holding you back.

It’s better to do this sooner rather than later, so that employees take the initiative seriously.

If your diversity, equity and inclusion programs gain a reputation for being all talk and no action (perhaps mentors rarely make themselves available for mentees) you could do permanent damage to the entire program.

On the other hand, recognizing that senior leaders aren’t spending enough time with mentees may be a sign that you need to set clearer expectations.

If your program meets or exceeds expectations, share your success.

Create video testimonials or write profiles about how the program has helped participants.

Sharing the success of the program, as told by participants, encourages others to get involved.

These case studies and testimonials also support your recruitment efforts. Almost half of surveyed millennials in one study stated they want to work at a diverse company.

diversity, equity and inclusion programs are not just about feeling good – they’re about growing your business, too

Implementing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are not just about feeling good - they’re about growing your business, too.

Diverse employees who are included in important decision-making processes bring unique and interesting perspectives to the workplace.

And this is an incredibly valuable skill for an economy that’s more and more reliant on creative and innovative problem-solving.

That said, diversity, equity and inclusion done right takes more than cosmetic changes or hastily developed programs.

It requires a strategic approach using the right tools to make meaningful and impactful change.