Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and Inclusion Training in the Workplace: What is it and why is it essential?

Training for diversity and inclusion is becoming more and more common in the workplace. But having a DEI strategy isn't enough and sometimes it can do more harm than good. In this article, we break down how to do diversity and inclusion training right with several examples.

John Allen

November 24, 2021

In 2018, two African-American men were in a Philadelphia branch of Starbucks waiting for their friend to arrive without having ordered anything. An employee called the police on them and the men were arrested, despite having done nothing wrong.

The incident quickly became a national story and a PR disaster for the Seattle-based coffee conglomerate. For one day, Starbucks closed every single one of their branches in the USA to hold a diversity and inclusion training session. As we'll soon discover, the response was mixed.

No matter what sector you’re in, diversity and inclusion training is essential. It's especially important in workplaces like retail or an inbound contact centre where staff are talking to hundreds of people every week, and if based in large urban centres, will have a more diverse workforce. 

But as we'll see, the benefits of diversity and inclusion training are available to every company.

Benefits of diversity and inclusion training

The benefits of diversity and inclusion training are paradoxically both measurable and immeasurable. McKinsey found that diverse companies were around 35% more likely to enjoy above-average profit margins in any given year. Those companies even created more value in the long term. The more diverse the company, the more likely they were to outperform the industry average.

A reduction in costly employee turnover is just one benefit of diversity and inclusion training. Others include:

  • Stronger working relationships within and between teams
  • A broader range of backgrounds and viewpoints in product decisions
  • Better product-market fit as products are built with more diverse customers in mind
  • Improved team morale
  • Retaining top talent

That same McKinsey report found that "ongoing diversity and inclusion training is a key factor to retaining diverse talent within an organization". With that in mind, let's see how you can start to bring diversity training into your organization.

The business case for diversity in executive teams remains strong - McKinsey
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How to get started with diversity and inclusion training

When introducing diversity and inclusion training into your company, you don't need to put everything into place at once. This move would be impractical and could cause unnecessary friction. It would ultimately reduce buy-in, and you'll miss early opportunities to evaluate what works, and what doesn’t.

Think of it like the CI method in software development. What does CI stand for? Continuous integration. Changes to the software product are small and regular, not coming in big batches. Among other benefits, it means quality assurance testers have less ground to cover when looking for potential bugs in the product.

It also fosters a healthy long-term attitude. The product will never be truly “finished”, but always has room for continuous improvement.

Performance Paradigm has been advising companies like Google on diversity and inclusion for 30 years. Their founder, Reggie Butler says,

“A lot of senior leadership is afraid of messing up. I don't care if you mess up. If you're trying, at least you’re showing evidence of effort. That will make your team stay. We need people to get involved and stay engaged.”

Training employees in diversity and inclusion

The crucial factor here is getting buy-in from the employees involved. One way to achieve that is by making these personal activities opt-in.

If leadership communicates the benefits of diversity and inclusion to the company, people will show up.

These personal exercises could be a short presentation or an interactive course. It could be a diversity-focused mentorship program. When creating a mentorship program tailored for employees from diverse backgrounds, you can run it a few different ways:

  • Reverse mentoring. In this scenario, the traditional 1-on-1 mentorship is flipped. That is, the more senior employee is the mentee, learning from the more junior employee. This style is best giving those already in leadership positions a new perspective.
  • Sponsorship. When a mentee wants to further their career, sponsorship may be the best fit. In this relationship, a mentor can use their authority or influence to advance the career of the mentee. For example, recommend the mentee for a promotion or facilitate a career move through their connections and seniority in the company. 
  • Employee resource groups. ERGs are a safe place where minority or diverse employees can build community with others like them. These are spaces where they can voice concerns. It is also an excellent resource for building connection and solidarity.

Include room for optional anonymous feedback at the end of your questionnaire. At early stages this could be anything from pointing out some missing context in your scenarios, adding nuance to one issue that was discussed, or little technical hitches in your scenarios like being unable to facilitate an employee to join a virtual meeting. 

These individual activities aim to encourage empathy and self-reflection. Try to tailor the personal activities to your workforce where possible. For example, workers are concerned about how to increase visibility in a remote setting where their efforts might go unseen by management. But they might not be aware of how employees from diverse backgrounds could feel it more acutely.

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Working with teams to support diversity and inclusion initiatives

When thinking about team activities, it's good to set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and anchored within a Time Frame). That way you can start to objectively evaluate how engaging these activities are and where you could improve. 

Here are several metrics to track:

  • The number of people who shared a story,
  • The number of people who didn't talk, and
  • The number of people who volunteered for certain activities.

In team exercises, you might get a group of five to ten employees together at a time. They should be diverse in a number of ways including gender, race, age, and job seniority.

You can start with any number of icebreaker exercises to get people talking. A typical exercise for a group session is for each member to pick a card at random (each card has a prompt about DEI issues) and tell the short story from the card.

The story will often be someone talking about a time they faced discrimination in the workplace. But it's just as useful to talk about the discrimination they faced in any other context.

Storytelling and fictional personas build empathy. If you've used personas and journeys to identify customer pain points before, many of those skills will transfer over. 

Your chosen story could be one of blatant discrimination. It could conversely reflect more subtle biases and unconscious behaviours that people in the group might never have considered. They might even recognize those behaviours in themselves.

This act of storytelling builds empathy with the “character(s)” involved in the story. But once they've finished, the person hosting this session will invite everyone to talk about the story. They could suggest ways the characters could have acted better, or talk about a time they saw or experienced something similar.

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How not to start with diversity and inclusion

Success isn't guaranteed. Recent trends like the slow job recovery of women and people of colour coming out of the pandemic shine a light on the distance employers still have to cover.

One important factor in your success will be a long-term commitment to setting clear goals. Those might be "increase diversity in our management roles over the next 12 months", or "increase the racial diversity of the candidates we interview".

We've also discussed some of the ways you can measure success and gather feedback in your diversity and inclusion sessions. Employee feedback is so important, especially from the diverse employees you want this all to benefit.

Many companies in America rushed to install a diversity and inclusion strategy amidst the Black Lives Matter protests of Summer 2020. Black employees found themselves pressured to explain their experiences of racism to their colleagues without being asked if they'd be willing to. A huge managerial slip that should be avoided at all costs.

Building on diversity and inclusion in the long term

When Starbucks held its racial bias session, experts warned that such one-off sessions weren't a silver bullet.

You want to build diversity and inclusion into all of your regular training and onboarding exercises. If successful, diversity concerns will come up naturally when creating or reviewing materials. But at this initial stage, you might want to organize a project timeline for the review of all these practices. That may be part of the larger timeline for implementing your diversity and inclusion training.

Changing workplace culture is a gradual process. A couple of sessions might display a commitment to addressing these issues. But the real change that's going to retain your top talent requires you to keep diversity and inclusion at front of mind for the long term.


John Allen is the Director of SEO for 8x8, a leading communication platform with integrated contact centre, voice, video, and chat functionality. John is a marketing professional with over 14 years of experience in the field, and an extensive background in building and optimizing digital marketing programs across SEM, SEO, and giving definitions to give industries a clearer understanding on what is  a VOIP Number and a myriad of services.

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