When it comes to diversity and inclusion training in the workplace, skeptics abound. Research and think pieces alike are pessimistic about the long-term results of diversity training. But for some companies, D&I training has come a long way from a standard, mandatory PowerPoint lecture.
Armed with powerful technology like virtual reality and multi-modal approaches, this next generation of D&I training teaches employees about unconscious bias and cultural competence in sustainable, meaningful ways affecting company culture and innovation from the ground-up.
This kind of D&I training should no longer be considered an afterthought, but rather as a way to drive real change, ensuring a pipeline of diverse talent that will foster innovation at your organization.
We spoke to leaders at Merck, BCG Digital Ventures, The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc, and STRIVR about how to create meaningful, business-driving D&I programming that’s more than lip service.
Radical Inclusion in Practice
For BCG Digital Ventures’, a corporate investment and incubation firm founded by BCG, company culture stems from its embrace of what Max Avruch, its learning and organizational development specialist, calls “radical inclusion.”
“It’s the notion of really trying to include everyone and not feeling like there’s the segregation that can easily happen in a work-type community,” he says. The key is to form a company culture that embraces diversity in a genuine way, not as a mandatory HR initiative.
But how does this play out in practice? Avruch says it takes a multi-modal approach to D&I – a mere course isn’t enough. BCG DV presents its senior leadership with unconscious bias training, but it’s only one part of the puzzle. Formal training is accompanied by employee business resource groups where people who share identities, as well as allies, can come together and discuss issues that come up for them at work and in life. The company also does lunch-and-learn programming and other organizational initiatives to put diversity front-and-center – sometimes literally.
The company recently did an initiative related to LGBTQ Pride, which included putting Kinsey scales (which show the spectrum of sexual orientation) inside bathroom stalls, inviting employees to anonymously mark where they fall on the scale. “It was a way for us to show diversity on our walls and to show people there is a spectrum around orientation,” he says.
These small D&I initiatives can add up in a major way and can be an excellent complement to a formal training program. By infusing D&I into employees’ days, employees get to learn more about issues facing a particular group, and learn a little bit about their colleagues too.
This can contribute to a more inclusive culture.
“So many companies hold off on [D&I training] until they get bigger,” Avruch says. “But by then, the culture already starts forming. Learning and development drives culture, and it needs to be built into all levels of an organization.”
Building Comprehensive Programs on an Organizational Level
Top D&I programs are built the same way a top leadership or sales training program would be – they’re multi-pronged, involve more than one way of delivery, and are developed over time. The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. has been ahead of this curve for a while. Their approach of building and developing their D&I program over time has allowed them to increase their diversity and inclusion in measurable ways every year since 1943, when they had their first documented discussion on diversity.
“As D&I practices have changed and learning processes have evolved, we realized that we wanted to build a more comprehensive program that offers our members the confidence to become D&I advocates,” says JuWon Choi, Chief Learning Officer at the Junior League.
While online and print resources are a key part of the puzzle, complementing them with in-person learning like conferences can make your program even more effective. The Junior League puts on three conferences a year and regularly features external D&I experts on topics like microaggressions, unconscious bias, and blind spots. These sessions have proved to be extremely popular.
“In response to the growing appetite for D&I training, we have begun offering a two-day intensive training program for League Members interested in gaining more knowledge and expertise in advancing D&I at their Leagues,” JuWon Choi says.
That program is offered several times a year at the League’s emerging leaders’ conference.
“It is true that a single training or resource cannot solve prejudice,” says Janine le Sueur, the VP of Programs. “We are taking an organizational approach rather than individual learning, meaning both our resource and training are designed to help Junior League leaders take intentional, systemic action to make D&I central to all aspects of their Leagues.”
Conscious Inclusivity in Moments that Matter
For Merck, D&I is more than just the right thing to do – it provides a competitive advantage. As one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, it’s crucial to have diverse perspectives in the room when you’re in the business of improving and saving lives.
“When thinking about our mission, there’s strength in our differences,” says Texanna Reeves, Executive Director of the Global Diversity and Inclusion Center of Excellence at Merck. For a company like Merck, which has a presence in 120 countries, it’s even more critical to have diverse talent. It’s not just that medicine packaging needs to be translated into different languages – Merck also has to take into account how medicine will be perceived culturally. This comes into play in the lab, in clinical trials, and in the office. And when you’re making major decisions, having different cultural voices at the table is an invaluable competitive advantage.
But how do you ensure a pipeline of diverse innovators? For Merck, it’s not just about identifying unconscious bias within yourself. Employees are challenged to take an active approach to D&I by being “consciously inclusive.”
One of Merck’s D&I initiatives is the Unconscious Bias Education Toolkit, an arsenal of resources that aims to tackle the unconscious bias that can occur during the “moments that matter” in the hiring process. The toolkit empowers senior leaders and people managers to facilitate their own training for their teams in an easily digestible way – think videos under three minutes and training sessions of 30 minutes or less. These are designed to allow leaders to easily embed the resources in a meeting or use the resources themselves when in the midst of a hiring decision.
“We’re really empowering our leaders to take ownership of it,” Reeves says. “The key is to be able to make it simple enough but effective so that they will truly utilize these resources.”
Reeves notes that the Toolkit is far from the only D&I initiative Merck is using to create and build upon its inclusive culture. Merck also incorporates employee resource groups, interactive theater, lunch-and-learns, and virtual reality into their D&I programming. And like the best L&D teams, they’re constantly reevaluating their progress with surveys and focus groups.
Teaching Empathy with Virtual Reality
Virtual reality is another great way to implement D&I training at your organization. No longer only an abstract idea, VR is happening in offices nationwide. STRIVR, a VR coaching company with roots out of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, is at the forefront of this technology being used by companies as diverse as jetBlue and the NFL. By harnessing the technology of VR, L&D teams have an opportunity to complement existing training by allowing employees to do something that’s relatively rare when it comes to D&I training – practice.
According to Danny Belch, the Chief Strategy Officer at STRIVR, VR’s ability to allow employees to practice their learning in a safe environment is what makes it such a rich complement to D&I training.
“Are you exposing people to information and expecting them to do better or do you actually want to get those repetitions, to use an athletic term?” Belch says.
Picture this: Goggles on, you hold out your hands and look down. You’re a different race. Or, you’re in a wheelchair. Maybe you’re a different gender. You walk down a hallway to go into a job interview, but first stop by a mirror to fully soak in your new virtual body. You’re then immediately confronted by someone who is displaying prejudice toward you.
These scenarios are impossible to reenact in real life. “With VR, because of the on-demand nature, a real life experience can be fired up with a click of a button,” Belch says. “You can now practice these situations. You can get a legitimate lifelike scenario with full end-to-end practice. It’s not role play. It’s alone and the stakes are free. You have this beautifully free space to practice, to stumble on your words.”
But, he says, companies can be hesitant to implement this technology – and it’s not as much about cost as you might think. It’s about challenging the status quo of an L&D department.
“It really is hard for [L&D teams] to get beyond the routine and figure out how this new tech will fit in,” Belch says. “The number one challenge for a company like us is the status quo. It’s actually a lot harder to uproot than what you might expect. The companies that have jumped in usually have one champion who really believes in it – the forward thinkers who jump in while everyone else is waiting.”
Companies like STRIVR collaborate with your D&I team to complement your existing training in a way that makes sense – but it has to be just that – a complementary program. If you’re interested in taking the plunge, Belch urges you to do research first.
“Take some time and work with some companies who have been doing this for a while, as they know what’s worked and hasn’t worked in VR,” he says. “This should be a collaborative effort. The VR people should not be creating the D&I training and the D&I people can’t create the VR training.”
Companies Who Fall Behind Will Get Left Behind
For all of the organizations we spoke to, D&I training has been a journey, and even once a program is implemented, it’s far from over. But according to Reeves of Merck, you just have to get started, even if you don’t have the resources to create a massive program.
“For those organizations that might be at the beginning of their D&I journey, start small,” she says. “Then, focus on your audience in terms of who you want to have an impact on first and then build up from there. Really look at where you can get started and then just go ahead and chip away at it!”
This article is part of the U.S. L&D Report 2019: Benchmark Your Workplace Learning Strategy
- The employee training modalities, number of days of training, and budget outlook for corporate learning in 2019.
- Down-to-earth advice from L&D leaders to help you adopt cutting-edge innovation and diversity and inclusion programs.
- How corporate learning leaders rank their impact in their organization, adopt new technologies, and engage employees in 2019.