Running a Diversity and Inclusion Training Program? Avoid These 3 Common Mistakes

A diverse and welcoming culture comes with undeniable business advantages: Teams that work well together, a better chance at attracting the very best talent, and easier transitions into new markets are just a few of them.

Thankfully, a growing number of employers are realizing this. They’re also understanding that a diverse and welcoming workplace culture doesn’t simply create itself. It requires time, attention and careful effort.

One of the crucial steps in that effort is implementing official diversity and inclusion training in the workplace. During this training, employees can learn more about why diversity and inclusion are important and exactly which behaviors will help to build a welcoming workplace.

However, not all diversity and inclusion training is created equal.

It’s unfortunate when companies take the steps of recognizing the importance of diversity, choosing a training program, and having their employees all sit through it — only to have the training be completely ineffective or even backfire.

Before you commit to any particular course of diversity and inclusion training for your organization, make sure to watch out for these three common mistakes that can render the training completely ineffective.

Mistake 1: Keeping the Training Completely Passive

Passive learning, in which students simply listen to a presentation or read the lesson material, is the standard learning method in most training programs.

Passive learning certainly has its place in the educational process, such as for introductions and general awareness. However, if the passive learning in your corporate diversity training program isn’t mixed with some active learning opportunities, your employees are much more likely to get bored, zone out, and forget what they learned.

Diversity training mistakes
Active learning, which employs techniques such as discussing diversity and inclusion training materials with an educated moderator, practicing the lessons in groups, and acting out the scenarios discussed, keeps employees engaged and helps them internalize the lessons.

Active learning does a better job at moving the material from simple “awareness” to the stage of actually changing behavior.

After all, employees can be well aware of the legal and financial downsides of incivility at work. They can understand how to recognize incivility, as well. But none of that matters if they haven’t been equipped with the tools to respond to incivility in real time.

Many of us know how it feels to be in a situation at work where we or one of our co-workers has been treated badly, or even one in which we ourselves have been accused of bad behavior. It’s all too easy to respond emotionally, or even simply ignore the bad behavior and try to go along with our day. Experiencing this behavior in real life feels much, much different than reading about a hypothetical scenario, or even watching a video about it happening to someone else.

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That’s why the best diversity and inclusion training programs take it further than awareness and actually put employees in the uncomfortable situations where they could be the most likely to encounter or even contribute to incivility at work.

Just as you wouldn’t advise someone to fly an airplane after simply reading an instruction manual, your employees need to have access to a diversity and inclusion “flight simulator” where they can crash and burn without causing lots of damage to your business and culture.

Mistake 2: Separating Diversity Training From Other Initiatives

If your organization is like most, your employees already have to juggle a lot at work. If diversity training is perceived as something that employees have to do on top of all of their other tasks, they’ll likely just resent the interruption.

After all, no one sees themselves as the problem. Most of your employees will assume that the only reason they’re being required to sit through training is because some of their coworkers can’t figure out how to be nice.

That’s why the diversity initiative should be positioned not as an afterthought, or even as something that’s “the right thing to do,” but as an effort whose business outcomes are just as important as things like sales and production goals.

Help your employees think of it this way: If you were holding a meeting on how the company was going to meet its annual goals, you wouldn’t just want to invite or focus on the worst offenders for productivity and performance. You’d want the best and brightest in attendance, and you’d want feedback from every level of employment. Diversity initiatives require the same approach. A civil workplace can only thrive if everyone participates, not just the alleged victims’ and perpetrators.

Similarly, you don’t necessarily need to recognize diversity and inclusion efforts as distinct from the rest of your workplace guidelines on appropriate, value-driven behavior at work.

Keeping it simple always improves the odds that something will be remembered and prioritized.

That’s why at ELI, we focus on helping clients create “Civil Treatment Workplaces,” where all behavior is in line with company values. By getting clear about your values and how they should be expressed, you don’t just eliminate unwelcoming or exclusionary behavior. You also curb harassment, bullying, and general rudeness — all of which have a very negative effect on your company, regardless of whether they are legal or not.

Mistake 3: Focusing on Microaggressions

Although the term may not be well known to the general workforce, people in the HR world are already very familiar with the term “microaggressions.”

As we explained in our post Why Focusing on Microaggressions is a Bad Idea, these are slight and often unintentionally harmful statements that reinforce offensive stereotypes or remind minority groups of their marginalized status. (For more examples of real microaggressions, head over to read the full post.)

Microaggressions present a unique training challenge. It seems like it would be a mistake to ignore them, because most of the exclusionary behavior exhibited in the office these days takes the form of microaggressions, and they can be very damaging. However, focusing on all of the subtle ways that it’s possible to offend others tends to make people feel overwhelmed and defensive.

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When it comes to microaggressions, the biggest offenders often see themselves as incapable of racism, or may even see themselves as particularly open-minded or progressive. Because of that, they may actually be especially resistant to feedback that their actions were in the wrong.

The last thing you need is for your employees to start defiantly accusing each other of “microaggressing.” What you need instead is good, old-fashioned, respectful communication.

When people feel comfortable speaking up when they feel something isn’t right or feel uncomfortable, they don’t need a special label or microaggression-specific training to know what to do.

The best civil workplace treatment training gives employees scripts like these:

“Hey [Employee Name], I know you didn’t mean to upset me when you said [offensive statement], but I thought I’d let you know that it makes me feel [insert feeling] when you point out that [marginalizing behavior].”

These kinds of responses should be effective for stopping all kinds of subtle bad behavior in its tracks, discriminatory or otherwise.

When you’ve worked to create a culture in which employees are expected to listen to each other carefully and with respect, regardless of the topic, the term “microaggression” might never even need to be come up outside of the HR department.
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Of course, creating such a culture isn’t simple. It requires strong leadership and clarification of values. But it can be done.

It’s easier when there are experts helping you along the way. We invite you to contact ELI today to learn about our Civil Treatment Series. We offer training options for all types of companies, from on-site learning with a live instructor, to training that’s led by virtual instructors, to supplemental online courses. Please reach out to us to learn more.

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