Why Diversity Training Should be a Conversation and Not Just an Office Policy

May 26, 2018

 

Diversity training in the workplace is a standard practice for most companies – however – it is marketed and executed as a “nice to have” wellness initiative. Typically, employees fill out surveys and undergo bias reduction training as a preliminary introduction into diversity. Really, the underlying motive can be transparent: a liability tactic to protect the company.

 

With minority groups fast becoming a plurality, the political atmosphere is experiencing strong resistance to this change. Minority groups in the workplace are not just racial, they include women, people of color, and transgender groups. There is no doubt that there is a palpable resistance to anything that challenges the status quo.

 

Clearly, resisting doesn't help anyone. Ideally we should embrace our minority differences and move forward. An awesome platform to bring consistent diversity awareness is in the workplace. The workplace is like the classroom where all cultures come together and contribute to the learning experience.

 

For many employees, diversity training feels forced and insincere. The dialogue surrounding race, sexual orientation, or gender is already a heated debate among the public and companies may choose the easy way out when it comes to starting the conversation. Usually companies equip employees with an impersonal, information-oriented diversity tutorial with online videos and a test at the end. In order for employees to really benefit from diversity training, your office needs to extend the dialogue into your workplace culture.

 

A diversity program should challenge employees to confront and change their behavior in the workplace. Within a safe environment, the conversation should be fluid and encouraging – freeing employees to share real issues they may face, and hopefully shed light on the biases they hold while they brainstorm alternative ways to approach them. Firstly, HR can ask employees an open-ended question such as "what does diversity mean to you in the workplace?" and employees can write down their ideas or raise their hands. Employee responses will gauge where employees currently stand with diversity and inclusion. And secondly, these opinions can help you as HR determine which trajectory your training should go to benefit employees in your office the most.

 

One study explains how Google’s diversity program increased the number of its minority new-hires. "Google stresses that 24% of leadership positions in 2015 were held by women, an increase of 2% over the year before. The site also notes that 4% and 5% of new hires in 2015 were black and Hispanic, respectively." If a company is homogenous in the types of employees who work there, a strong diversity program can allow cultural immersion to be that more desirable to the company and new-hires. It is similar to wanting to learn a foreign language; the best way to immerse yourself is to live in that foreign country for awhile. Apply the same in the workplace: get used to having a diverse work environment and the workplace culture will learn and adapt. Sometimes, minority groups may feel intimidated by entering workplaces usually dominated by a specific group, but a company that challenges a widely perceived bias should be open to tap into all talents employees may possess.

 

Furthermore, an article by Harvard Business Review identifies three key aspects of a successful diversity training program. One point is to make diversity training voluntary, not mandatory, in the workplace. Interestingly, exerting too much control over how diversity training is conducted can make employees not want to participate. Again, employees should have a say in what they would like to discuss by offering them a elective platform. In the beginning, employees would benefit most if they controlled the discussion, while HR and employers stand back and monitor. Reducing employee pressure to participate is the best way for employees to openly join the diversity discussion and perhaps see themselves as pro-diversity.

 

The second point is to take the focus on employee behavioral interventions, instead of bias reduction strategies. To change behavior, employees need to consider their biased thoughts and dispel them by putting themselves in another person's shoes. Being empathetic and considering why stereotypes and biases occur in the first place can change the way employees perceive themselves and others in the workplace. Employees can reenact real workplace prejudices through role-play which can help employees and the company find real solutions. Allow employees to challenge more of their senses with awareness, opinionated discussions, and interventions and you will see how much more impact that will have over just handing employees a diversity pamphlet to skim through and read.

 

The third point is to narrow the diversity discussion to the workplace, and not to employees' personal lives. That will make it easier to tailor your diversity program specifically to your workplace: making employees, managers, and non-managers accountable for their actions. Rehashing employee prejudices outside work can create more tension among distinct groups of people. Ideally, employees who practice pro-diversity values in the workplace will likely practice them in their everyday lives.

 

A workplace that prioritizes diversity is a company that embraces different perspectives and thrives on education and learning. We all come from various backgrounds culturally, economically, and personally and the office should be an open space of understanding and opportunity. Do diversity training that will reinforce real change, not sameness.