An effective corporate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative starts with top leadership support and a long-term commitment and strategy. It encompasses hiring and retention, to create an environment where employees feel valued and can perform at their fullest potential. It looks at sales and marketing, to reach and understand new customers, markets, and cultures. And it looks at operations, helping to build diverse teams, known to produce more creative solutions to problems and greater product innovation.

Committing to equity and inclusion cannot just live in the executive office, however. Each individual that contributes to a company must be trained to practice it as well. An effective DEI training is tied to a comprehensive company strategy and allows participants to learn about themselves and gain tools for ongoing practice and growth. It starts with self-awareness—training employees to see their own biases, communication styles, and values and to recognize, in the moment, how their style impacts someone who is different. All good and well, but when company sponsored training is based on personal growth, who is accountable?

The fact that it’s called “personal growth” places the accountability with the person. A person must want to grow and change, or it won’t happen. That said, companies have an obligation to make sure that their training is effective.

When Self-Awareness Triggers Discomfort

As the phrase goes, once you see something, you can’t unsee it. Martin (not his real name), a manager at a major high-tech company, found that his DEI training at work started to infiltrate his personal life, as he became hyper-aware of his previously unconscious biases. “I didn’t know I thought this way,” he confided. Furthermore, he didn’t have the language to express what he was experiencing to others. “It was hard.” He felt if he shared his now exposed biases at work, in the process of overcoming them, he would be penalized. Furthermore, Martin felt like this was his problem to deal with alone, because he was experiencing this outside of the workplace as well.

Unconscious Bias Training that only focuses on recognizing bias and doesn’t give tools to respond is irresponsible. It is natural for people to be drawn to people who are like them. A good DEI training will teach participants to slow down the instance between perception and reaction and ask: “how am I impacting someone else with my style? How do I undo the labels that feed unconscious bias, before responding?”

Employees—Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

As far as employees and their own personal DEI journey, “We all have unconscious biases. The fact that you prefer someone who is like you when you interact with people does not mean that you are racist or sexist or homophobic,” says Elmer Dixon, President of Executive Diversity Services. To grow, Dixon advises people to challenge themselves to be comfortable with their discomfort so that they can seek differences rather than always looking for similarities. “Don’t freak out,” adds Dixon. “Self-knowledge, empathy, curiosity, flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity, and practice will bring results.”

Companies—Provide Responsible Training and Anticipate Employee Responses

Companies must anticipate the need to support employees’ ongoing growth. Real change will not happen from a one time, one and done training. When evaluating training programs, be sure the training teaches tools that employees can use to drive change—not just awareness. A good training protocol should include a follow-up in 6 to 8 months to see how things are going, measure change that has happened, and to practice the tools. Finally, a company can anticipate discomfort or need for support as the organization implements its DEI strategy and the culture of the company changes around it. Tactics here can be to have a designated expert for “drop-in” hours where people can bring individual challenges, or scheduled, facilitated conversations where employees can get help. Imagine the power as well of top leadership sharing their own vulnerability and making their process transparent to employees as an example. Furthermore, companies can offer resources, reading materials, personal time, suggestions on ways to continue the journey outside of the office, and even including EAP and therapeutic resources to support the individual growth.

An Effective DEI Training Will Teach Concrete Tools and Best Practices for Individual Action

The lines between business and personal have shifted over the years as company cultures work to be more inclusive and attract better talent with the promise of work-life balance. With the pandemic making work-from-home the norm, the distinction is even more blurred. Newer generations in the workplace more and more expect to find meaning and connection and a sense of belonging at work as well.

Companies should consider how their culture makes space for the personal journey. Does the company culture suggest empathy and compassion and people first? Without a core value like this at its foundation, the maturity of DEI is difficult and may not be truly effective considering the deeply changing work of broadening awareness of employees. Offering this core value at the center of the company shows a recognition and gives space to actions within the company to be imperfect, to be vulnerable, and to be transparent in communication. Together, companies and their employees can grow for mutual benefit.

About the Authors

Sarah Ratcliffe (she/her), CIC, SPHR, is VP, Product Management Agency/Broker Solutions at Applied Insurance, where she helps insurance businesses adapt and transform to a world-class digital technology environment with an inclusive and diverse workforce.

Deanna Shoss (she/her) is a marketer, writer and interculturalist in Chicago. As CEO of Intercultural Talk, Inc., she provides digital, intercultural and real-life marketing for non-digital natives. She helps people who seek strategy and tactics to build their business or realize a purpose-driven project with websites, blogging, enewsletters, social media and promotions in real life. Deanna speaks Portuguese and is a certified Body Pump instructor. Learn more at or follow her on Twitter, @cultureguru

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