Embedding diversity training for real change

Effective EDI training involves communicating its purpose, including and respecting your people and measuring progress, says Monica McCoy

Credit: Monica Motivates

When Suella Braverman became home secretary last year, she openly dismissed diversity training as “patronising” and a “waste of money”, adding that it was “tearing up society” and “breaking down the fabric of our country”. 

So it’s interesting to see that the number of Home Office staff receiving diversity training has more than doubled under her leadership of the department and, in the first six and a half months of her tenure, the number of civil servants receiving public sector equality training increased to 126 a month, with some 835 staff receiving the training between the start of September 2022 and mid-March.

That’s good news because research shows that people entering the workforce today want to join companies with highly inclusive cultures, that the vast majority of companies in the US and UK have committed C-suite positions to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and that more diverse organisations perform better in numerous ways. This became crystal clear when we surveyed HR leaders in the UK and US. EDI is here to stay because it has inherent value for people and because it works for organisations. But it only works if it’s approached in the right way. You can increase the likelihood that your efforts will be effective and become part of the organisational culture when you consider your unique context and employee population, prioritise a few areas at one time, and appreciate the vulnerability required to help people change long-held beliefs and biases.

So how do you do diversity training right?

Start with ‘why’

As Simon Sinek writes in his book of the same name, the most effective leaders and organisations inspire, rather than manipulate, by communicating the fundamental purpose of what they’re trying to achieve. The ‘what’ is important, and the ‘how’ matters, too. But beneath those is the ‘why’ – and that’s the real engine of progress, in business or in life.

Effective EDI training begins with a real deep dive into its purpose and clearly communicating what that purpose is to people in your organisation. This can be a sobering process, because we often do things in business just because others are doing them, because they’re ‘best practice’ or in vogue in our network. The ‘why’ of diversity training will differ from organisation to organisation. But it might encompass such things as wanting to reflect the world you want to live in, creating an inclusive culture where all team members can contribute fully, and boosting performance and profit by serving people.

Put employees at the heart

It might seem obvious that cultural change should involve putting employees at its centre. But in some businesses, especially those with a strict hierarchical structure, top-down approaches can seem the most natural way to get things done. This inevitably strips diversity training of its nuances and can fail to contextualise that training within the existing group of employees.

The crux of most EDI is about helping underrepresented people, such as women or people of colour, to feel included, respected for their perspectives and able to contribute fully. So, you need to understand your unique organisation and know your people, and they have to be at the centre of your training.

Always strive to sow unity, not division

Related to this is the importance of encouraging trust and collaboration. Calling out certain forms of behaviour can be effective, for example, but it can also damage trust, and limit the possibility for reconciliation, learning and growth. Good diversity training will likely involve having challenging conversations, but those conversations will only be effective if the parties are given the respect they need to allow them to be vulnerable. If one of those parties feels blamed, shamed or ‘in the wrong’, then they’re far more likely to be defensive, and that makes progress difficult.

Measure your progress

EDI is ultimately about people and their relationships with one another (and themselves). But by no means does that imply that analysis and quantitative data have no place in diversity training. Without a clear measurement strategy in place, it’s too easy to misinterpret results, assume things are working (or not working) when the opposite is true, and to rely on the intuitions that can be hopelessly off the mark. Data also has the benefit of helping you to secure long-term buy-in and investment from the decision makers in your organisation, as well as for providing positive reinforcement to those taking part in your diversity training. It’s natural for us to feel motivated and satisfied when we feel we’re making progress, and that’s vital with EDI.

Slow and steady wins the race

It’s always worth recognising that some of the behaviours and habits that EDI aims to change are the product of a very long period of structural injustice and unfairness. It’s natural that these will take time and persistent effort to address. So, the best approach to diversity training is always thorough, regular, patient and tailored to your specific context.

Monica McCoy is CEO and co-founder of global consultancy Monica Motivates