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Updated Nov 13, 2023

Creating a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Training Program

Improve equality in your workplace with comprehensive diversity, equity and inclusion training.

Tom Anziano headshot
Tom Anziano, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Writer
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Despite the increasing focus on making businesses of all sizes more inclusive and diverse, many still struggle to overcome the biases that keep them from entering or thriving in the workplace. One way to create more welcoming companies that respect differences and embrace people from underrepresented groups is to implement diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) training programs.

What is a DE&I training program? 

Diversity, equity and inclusion training programs teach employees at all levels to uncover, identify and correct for biases or prejudices that have kept people from underrepresented groups from being hired or promoted in the workplace. DE&I programs provide the tools to work toward creating diverse and inclusive companies where people from all groups — especially marginalized people — are represented (diversity), treated fairly and given equal opportunities (equity), and feel welcome and supported (inclusion). 

DE&I training has the potential to positively address biases and prejudice within organizations, according to Katerina Bezrukova, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo’s School of Management and co-author of a study that examined 40 years of research on diversity training. DE&I programs can include various approaches. However, the goal is always increasing empathy and understanding across the board to ensure everyone feels valued, respected, and like an integral part of the team.

TipTip
Stress inclusive communication in your DE&I training program. Ensure your team understands the importance of listening and speaking with inclusivity, acknowledging unconscious bias, and understanding microaggressions.

How do you create a DE&I training program? 

Successful DE&I training programs require careful planning to ensure they make a meaningful difference, boost company morale, and are worth the time and money invested. 

“A well-designed [DE&I] training program can elevate employee morale, boost customer satisfaction, and drive bottom-line business success,” explained Pamela Pujo, the diversity, equity and inclusion manager at CBRE. Additionally, Pujo noted that DE&I training programs “will encourage increased collaboration, enhance interpersonal skills, and empower underrepresented groups to feel more valued and respected in the workplace.” 

However, to arrive at these successful outcomes, you must carry out DE&I training responsibly. 

“At best, [DE&I training programs] can engage and retain women and people of color in the workplace, but at worst, [they] can backfire and reinforce stereotypes,” Bezrukova warned.

Pujo concurred, noting that these programs can have unintended negative outcomes. “Sometimes, [DE&I] training reinforces differences between people rather than providing the needed insight and instruction on how to work effectively together,” Pujo noted.

To avoid DE&I training pitfalls and ensure success, consider the following tips for getting the most out of your training program. 

1. Develop an understanding of DE&I training.

Establishing a DE&I training program for your organization starts with developing a clear, detailed definition of what the program should entail. A comprehensive program provides concrete ways to engage in respectful and positive interactions in the workplace. At the same time, it should reduce discrimination and prejudice based on factors like gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, age, religion, physical and mental ability, and socioeconomic status.

Here are some key elements to understand about DE&I training. 

  • DE&I training should cover a range of issues. DE&I training programs should target all employees and address a range of issues, including unconscious bias, microaggressions and cross-cultural communications. Effective training moves beyond encouraging employees to tolerate differences to teaching employees how to work well together while embracing diverse perspectives. 
  • DE&I training should be tied to the company’s mission. DE&I training programs should reflect an organization’s core mission, values and ethics. “[DE&I training] should tie diversity and inclusion to the vision, mission, values and goals of the organization, and then move into how to value all aspects of diversity with co-workers, clients, customers and the community at large,” explained Stan Kimer, president of Total Engagement Consulting by Kimer and vice president of training at the National Diversity Council.
  • DE&I training measures improve organizations. It’s crucial to understand that enacting DE&I training will improve the overall organization — not waste time and resources. “Appropriate and effective diversity and inclusion training can mitigate legal risks and bolster affirmative defenses, support ongoing recruitment and retention efforts, and contribute to a more productive workplace,” explained Weldon Latham, a principal with Jackson Lewis and chairman of the firm’s corporate diversity counseling practice group.
Did You Know?Did you know
Diverse company cultures can spark creativity and innovation, improve recruitment strategies, and boost employee retention.

2. Extend and maintain DE&I training over time.

In Bezrukova’s study, diversity training positively affected employees’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviors toward diverse groups. However, over time, participants regressed to pretraining attitudes.  

“The attitudes this training attempts to change are generally strong, emotion-driven and tied to our personal identities, and we found little evidence that long-term effects to them are sustainable,” Bezrukova noted. “However, when people are reminded of scenarios covered in training by their colleagues or even the media, they are able to retain or expand on the information they learned.”

To extend and maintain DE&I training:

  • Deliver DE&I training over an extended period. For DE&I training to be truly successful, it must be delivered over an extended period. Bias-and-diversity training programs shouldn’t be annual events that check off the corporate compliance box. “Diversity awareness and focus must be a part of a company’s culture in all aspects … For training to be effective, the message must be reinforced regularly, and managers must coach their employees when they see behaviors and attitudes that contradict an inclusive environment,” said Shane Green, an organizational and corporate culture coach and author of Culture Hacker.
  • Ingrain diversity and inclusion into the fabric of your company. Instead of planning one-time workshops or an annual training day, roll out a series of programs, events, celebrations, peer mentoring opportunities and other experiences for continual learning. Ingrain diversity and inclusion into the fabric of your business so these concepts become the norm. In turn, training becomes more about positive behavior reinforcement than an annual lecture about prohibitive rules.

“The most successful companies don’t view workshops as a one-and-done event but an opportunity to reinforce and build on a larger cultural commitment,” said Jonathan Coffin, associate vice president for university communications at Indiana University and former co-chair of the diversity and inclusion practice group at Vox Global. “The program matters, but the message and the messenger matter, too.”

3. Tailor DE&I training to your company.

DE&I training should be tailor-made for the organization conducting it. “Corporate diversity training programs must be based on a foundational understanding of the unique diversity and inclusion objectives and challenges of each organization,” Latham advised.

To tailor DE&I training to your company, consider the following best practices: 

  • Assess your organization honestly. Each company must take time to look inward, conduct fact-gathering initiatives, assess the current company culture, and identify unresolved workplace conflicts and issues employees face. Employee surveys, focus groups, and other employee audits are ways to gather information internally.
  • Utilize professional help. Latham recommended bringing in objective outside help to guide you through data collection and analysis. “The most useful [company] assessments are conducted by outside experts who bring fresh perspectives, objectivity, and a commitment to identify key diversity and inclusion barriers, without regard to ‘sacred cows’ or ‘but that’s the way we have always done it.'” (More on using professional help later.)
  • Use real-life examples to illustrate concepts. Your program content should leverage data and examples specific to your organization. “Part of creating a space of understanding is putting the implications of bias into a context that all of your employees can understand,” Coffin advised. “For instance, rather than talking about bias or microaggression in the abstract, you can draw on data or excerpts from your own employee survey to use real-life examples that your employees can relate to. If these issues become about their colleagues, about people they care about, the long-term impact will be much stronger.”

Once you’ve done your research, analyzed the data, and developed objectives and goals, you can design a program for your company’s unique needs, history and culture. 

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
According to the Pew Research Center, women earn, on average, 82 percent of what men do — and that number has barely budged in 20 years. Closing the workplace gender gap should be a priority for all businesses.

4. Plan an integrated approach to DE&I training.

Bezrukova and her colleagues discovered that employees responded more favorably to DE&I training when it used several instruction methods, including lectures, discussions and exercises. 

Here are some ways employers can plan an integrated approach to DE&I training: 

  • Make DE&I training part of a series of related initiatives. Bezrukova said diversity programs have the greatest impact when delivered as part of a series of related initiatives, such as mentoring or internal networking groups for minority professionals. “When organizations demonstrate a commitment to diversity, employees are more motivated to learn about and understand these social issues and apply that in their daily interactions,” Bezrukova explained.
  • Tie DE&I training to your company culture. You can integrate DE&I training with sessions discussing company culture, employee satisfaction, retention or professional development, advised Jeremy Greenberg, founder of Avenue Group. Additionally, this training should be infused into the company culture so that it becomes a part of the onboarding process for new hires.
  • Vary your DE&I training delivery methods. There are many traditional ways to reach your intended audience — such as in person, by webinar or over video — as well as more contemporary delivery methods, such as gamification and mobile learning. You can also deliver DE&I training via e-learning or micro-learning courses. “These are shorter courses that can be presented throughout the year and serve as reinforcement to a longer version of training,” Pujo said.
  • Engage your participants. Regardless of your approach, the goal should always be to engage participants as much as possible. “Quality, interactive content can help employees better understand the issues,” Pujo explained. “The sessions should incorporate reality-based scenarios and role-playing (when facilitated in person) so that participants can better understand the concepts being presented. Interactive exercises also help to keep participants engaged during the training.”

5. Include workers of all levels in your DE&I training.

Training should be mandatory for all employees, regardless of their status in the company — not just lower-level workers. 

“All employees must participate, including senior executives,” Greenberg advised. “Workplace diversity is weakest at the leadership level. Leaders of all races, genders and sexual orientations must participate in any training program for their benefit and to make it clear that the organization is committed.”

Even if you’re the CEO, you must participate in DE&I training like everyone else. You’ll show your team how serious you are about the issue while acknowledging that everyone can better themselves with training.

“We are all biased in some way, so begin with that understanding, and then have people work on what their biases are — some simple, while others [are] more controversial,” Green said. “The goal of diversity training is less about agreeing with another person’s perspective or orientation [than] about accepting that we are all different, and those differences should not preclude us to minimize that person’s abilities, opportunities or being a part of the team.”

TipTip
A culture of inclusion starts at the top. Owners and managers must commit to building a diverse culture and hiring professionals open to working with people of various nationalities, skin colors, genders and sexual orientations.

6. Hire an expert to assist with DE&I training.

To provide quality, professional training for your workers, look to an expert to run the program.

“Assigning a team member, such as the HRO or CFO, to lead the session is tempting, but it is often not the best approach,” Greenberg shared. “Instead, bring on someone who is independent, has experience leading these specific sessions, serves as an authority figure based on expertise, and doesn’t bring any institutional ‘baggage’ because [they are] not an employee.”

7. Track your DE&I training results and recalibrate efforts.

DE&I training aims to bring about real, meaningful change to your organization. Tracking the progress your business makes on meeting specific, defined DE&I key performance indicators (KPIs) is essential.

Every company faces unique challenges, and not every training program will address all issues. You must track your training program’s effect over time and readjust your efforts based on what is working and what isn’t.

Why is a DE&I training program important?

Educating your employees and executives on DE&I — and giving them the tools to foster a fair, diverse, and inclusive workplace — is the right thing to do. But beyond that, there are many reasons why implementing a DE&I training program is essential for your business, including the following: 

  • A DE&I training program enhances communication. A DE&I training program helps employees with different backgrounds, lifestyles, values and opinions communicate and collaborate better. Being open to new ideas and perspectives leads your employees to higher rates of productivity and innovation. In turn, this results in better outcomes for your business.
  • A DE&I training program empowers your team. A DE&I training program creates an environment where people from underrepresented groups feel empowered. All employees are given equal access to growth opportunities and strive to climb the corporate ladder. This means your business doesn’t miss out on some of its best talent. Plus, an empowered employee is an engaged employee.
  • A DE&I training program improves your company’s reputation. Employees want to work for a company they can believe in, so prioritizing DE&I can help you attract and retain top talent. It also sends a message to consumers that your company’s values align with theirs — which can lead to increased sales and build customer loyalty

What does research into diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace say?

Efforts to increase workplace diversity, equity and inclusion are increasingly important to businesses. According to the latest Diversity and Inclusion World Market Report by StrategyR, spending on DE&I reached $9.4 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow to $24.3 billion by 2030. 

With all that money being spent, understanding the current state of DE&I in the workplace is essential. Here are some findings from the latest studies that your business should consider.

1. Diversity is good for your bottom line.

The research is clear. Having a diverse workforce at all levels leads to better results. 

  • Diversity can boost profits. According to a 2020 diversity report by McKinsey, organizations with the highest levels of gender diversity on executive teams are 25 percent more likely to have above-average profit margins. The rate is even higher — 36 percent — for ethnically and culturally diverse companies. 
  • Diversity boosts productivity. Diversity doesn’t just make a company more profitable; it makes individual employees more productive. The StrategyR report found that inclusive teams are over 35 percent more productive and generate 2.5 times higher cash flow per employee. 

2. People want to work for diverse companies.

Diversity also makes businesses more attractive to potential employees. 

  • Diversity affects job candidates’ decisions. According to Glassdoor’s Diversity and Inclusion Workplace Survey, 76 percent of respondents said diversity is a top factor when deciding where to work. Additionally, 1 in 3 people would actually refuse to work at a company that isn’t diverse — and this rate is even higher for underrepresented groups.
  • DE&I is becoming increasingly important to job candidates. As more diverse, younger generations comprise a larger workforce share, DE&I will continue to become more important. For example, millennials and Gen Zers expect companies to foster diverse, inclusive workplaces. A 2020 Monster survey found that a whopping 83 percent of Gen Z workers prioritized diversity when choosing an employer. 
Did You Know?Did you know
Equal employment opportunity (EEO) compliance laws forbid discriminating against employees and applicants based on protected characteristics. Ensure your business is EEO compliant.

3. Employees don’t think leaders are doing enough.

The amount of money organizations spend on DE&I initiatives might make them feel they’re doing everything possible to tackle the problem — but employees may have a different perception. 

The PwC 2022 Global Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Survey found that 54 percent of business leaders said diversity is a priority for their organization. However, only 39 percent of employees agreed that this was the case. Even worse, more than a quarter of respondents said diversity is a barrier to career growth at their company.

The StrategyR report found similar results, noting that over 65 percent of employees say their managers don’t work toward creating inclusive workplaces. While businesses are clearly trying, research demonstrates that employers still have a long way to go. 

4. DE&I initiatives must be tracked better.

A comprehensive 2022 review of studies on diversity training by Patricia G. Devine and Tory L. Ash found no clear conclusion about the effectiveness of DE&I training programs. The authors cited a lack of research into the efficacy of these programs and said DE&I results must be based on more than how employees feel about them. Instead, these efforts must set specific, measurable goals that companies invest time and money to track. 

So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case. While the PwC survey found that 72 percent of organizations in North America listed DE&I as a stated value, only 28 percent of leaders are tasked with specific DE&I goals, and just 22 percent have their progress on meeting DE&I goals measured. 

5. DE&I should be an integral part of a company’s mission and goals.

While the efficacy of training programs might not be clear, there is strong evidence that implementing an integrated approach to DE&I has real benefits. 

Ivuoma Onyeador, an assistant professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the co-author of a review of diversity training programs, says training programs can be successful when they’re part of a company’s mission and goals. In fact, the review noted that combining training programs with mentorships and diversity oversight structures increased managerial diversity by 40 percent. 

TipTip
Promoting diversity, equity and inclusion creates a positive company culture that highly qualified job seekers demand.

Does diversity training really work?

While DE&I training has been touted as a strong solution to many race- and diversity-related workplace issues, there is some speculation as to whether diversity training actually works as intended. 

Here are some reasons a diversity training program might fail:

  • There is an expectation that participants will shed their biases — which is often not possible or realistic.
  • Companies use negative messaging, like implied threats, or negative consequences, such as legal action against the company.
  • Making the training mandatory or using the training as a punishment can instill animosity and resentment.

To investigate the effectiveness of diversity training, writers at the Harvard Business Review conducted their own study, creating a diversity training program and testing the results. Here are some of their findings:

  1. The training positively affected employees who were unsupportive of women in the workplace by making them more likely to acknowledge discrimination against women, show support for policies designed to help women, and acknowledge their own biases.
  2. There was no backlash from employees who were already supportive of women.
  3. Diversity training has little effect on the behavior of men or white employees in general.
  4. The training prompted women to be more proactive about their advancement by seeking mentorships.
  5. Employees who participated in the training were more likely to acknowledge their own racial biases and recognize the work of their peers who were racial minorities.

The study results suggest that there is no one-size-fits-all diversity training and that making the program work takes a lot of careful thought and design. For best results, follow the advice below:

  • Focus on tailoring your training to your company by addressing its unique problems.
  • Consider how your employees might respond to training variables (such as making it mandatory vs. voluntary or online vs. in person). 
Did You Know?Did you know
Research shows that many women don't speak up in the workplace because of microaggressions, interruptions and feeling overlooked in the office.

How can you become a diversity trainer?

You may want to invest in an in-house person to deliver your DE&I program or become a diversity trainer yourself. Anyone conducting DE&I training must have the knowledge, skill set, passion and comfort level to deal with the often-complicated dynamics that arise with these issues.

Here’s what a diversity trainer should do:

  • Gain experience in diversity programs. “To become a diversity trainer, an individual should obtain experience in multicultural and diverse programs, become well versed in diversity and inclusion terminology and definitions, and learn about various instructional design and delivery,” Pujo advised.
  • Find a mentor or network to help you learn. You or your potential in-house trainer can also seek out mentorship programs through associations and networking opportunities. 
  • Gain professional certifications. To build your tool kit and increase your expertise, consider completing professional credential training to earn a diversity certification. There are various diversity professional training programs, as well as different designations you can earn, including certified diversity trainer (CDT), certified diversity professional (CDP) and certified diversity executive (CDE).

However, sometimes, becoming a diversity trainer requires harder-to-measure skills. 

“To be a good diversity trainer, the person must have both a broad and deep knowledge of the diversity issues facing corporations, must have a commitment to address the elephants in the room, and must be a good communicator,” Latham shared. “In addition, an effective diversity trainer must provide practical advice that the trainees can use to enhance diversity and inclusion in their own workplace.”

What are the best DE&I training programs?

Many training programs can teach employees and managers about diversity, excellent diverse hiring and promoting practices, and how to build a truly inclusive team where people are treated fairly. 

Some popular diversity training programs include the following:

HRDQ

HRDQ offers interactive training programs on various DE&I topics, including cultural competency, implicit bias and generational communication. Most courses are part of a subscription that includes action plans and updated materials. Annual subscriptions start at $599.

HRDQ also offers a program called Diversity Works, which consists of a three-hour workshop and an interactive game. The program can host up to 25 participants and is designed to foster meaningful communication between employees by helping them understand themselves and others.

The cost of Diversity Works starts at $499.99, which is about $20 per employee if 25 employees participate. Training refills (i.e., replenished workshop and activity materials) are available for $199.99.

Compliance Training Group

Compliance Training Group offers employee training on several topics, including sexual harassment, violence and workplace ethics. The company also offers two DE&I online training courses designed specifically for employees and managers. These programs, around 60 to 90 minutes in length, can be accessed and completed 24 hours a day and are budget-friendly at $29.99 per employee. 

eCornell

eCornell is an online learning platform from Cornell University offering a workplace diversity, equity and inclusion program for business owners, managers, and HR professionals. The program consists of online instructor-led courses that take about two months to complete. You will receive a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Certificate from Cornell ILR School upon completion. The course can be purchased for a one-time fee of $3,699 or four monthly payments of $975.

American Management Association

AMA offers a course on Leading in a Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive Culture. The course is designed for business leaders and managers and has two sessions that can be taken online or at an in-person class. The course educates on DE&I issues and helps leaders develop a vision and plan for a more diverse and inclusive workplace. The cost for non-AMA members is $2,595, but members receive a discount. The organization also offers a longer DE&I Certificate Program priced at $3,295 for non-AMA members.

Coursera

If your small business doesn’t have the resources to pay for an expensive DE&I course, but you want to find a way to educate your managers and employees, Coursera’s Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace course is a great place to start. The online course takes about 10 hours, and people can work at their own pace. Best of all, it’s completely free. 

TipTip
Technology can help you recruit diverse talent. For example, some applications enable anonymous resume reviews and tools that flag biased job descriptions and postings.

DE&I training is only the first step

A DE&I training program isn’t a quick fix. It must be part of a larger drive to make diversity, equity and inclusion a core value and priority for your business. To be successful, DE&I training programs must be well-planned, tailored to the specific needs of your company, and tracked and measured against concrete goals. 

But training programs are only one piece of the puzzle. DE&I training should be implemented alongside other programs like peer mentorships, recruitment programs and diversity task forces that aim to make diversity, equity and inclusion a key tenet of your company’s mission. 

Paula Fernandes and Kiely Kuligowski contributed to this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Tom Anziano headshot
Tom Anziano, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Writer
Thomas Anziano is an advertising and marketing professional who has worked in the U.S. and Germany. He has also taught Business Writing in English to university students in Madrid, Spain. He holds a degree in Marketing and Spanish.
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