Diversity and inclusion training: The role of managers

Diversity and inclusion training for managers

In the “Diversity Day” episode of The Office, middle-manager Michael Scott (instructed by his company, Dunder Mifflin) organizes a diversity and inclusion training event for his team. “We only have an hour,” states the external trainer invited in to lead the introductory session. And, after an awkward 60 minutes, the trainer promptly departs, leaving his audience with more questions (and concerns) than answers.

Scott then attempts to fill the rest of the day with some follow-up diversity training, which (needless to say) is an absolute disaster. The whole episode is painful to watch, but from an L&D perspective, it delivers a very powerful message.

And that message is that training diversity and inclusion in the workplace can’t be ticked off in a day. To have an impact, and to make a tangible difference, it needs to be part of an ongoing program. And that requires having managers informed, invested, and involved throughout.

But, what does this mean in reality? Let’s take a look.

What is diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace?

Acronyms are everywhere. And they have their uses. But, in a bid to provide a short and snappy shorthand, acronyms often disguise the true meaning of what they represent. DEI is a prime example of this.

Citing their commitment to “DEI”, many organizations expect the acronym to do the work for them. Failing to dig deeper, they pay lip service to the concept, without investing any significant time or meaningful training into exploring the practicalities. Or, the deeper meaning associated with the three unique terms.

To promote genuine diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, DEI must be seen as more than a theoretical and generic commitment to “recognizing people’s differences.” It must be about building a truly inclusive workplace. And to do this, the concept needs to be dissected, with actionable steps assigned to the three distinct elements of:

  • Diversity: recognizing the physical, social, and psychological differences of all current and future employees
  • Equity: breaking down barriers to give everyone access to the same expectations, treatment, opportunities, and advancement
  • Inclusion: welcoming and valuing everyone and making them feel part of a bigger team

But how does it work in practice?

The role of managers in building inclusive teams

Like Dunder Mifflin, many companies think that diversity and inclusion training equals a one-off mandatory training workshop or online module. But the reality is that, while this approach may tick a box, it doesn’t make a difference in practice.

Driving long-term behavior change and embedding diversity and inclusion into workplace culture, requires ongoing reinforcement. And who better to do this than your managers who are a constant presence in the day-to-day working lives of your employees?

For employees to truly engage in a company-wide commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, managers need to lead the way and set an example.

Demonstrating understanding and awareness of the importance of diversity and equality in the workplace is crucial. And this can be achieved in a number of defined ways. For example, by:

  • looking for and sharing research or articles on the subject of diversity and inclusion
  • inviting team members to raise topics for discussion in team meetings
  • being open about new diversity and inclusion themes
  • highlighting internal communications’ D&I initiatives and campaigns

But this formal, overt approach isn’t enough. To really make an impact and drive through change, managers need to put their commitment to diversity into action. And they need to be consistently seen to be doing so. Whether it’s at the hiring stage or during internal promotion rounds, in team meetings or individual catch-ups, or in the language and imagery used in their comms, how managers embody diversity in their everyday work is the most powerful learning tool of all.

Sounds easy, no? Perhaps not.

Diversity and inclusion training: The role of managers

Empowering managers to grow and lead diverse teams

Some things are pretty easy to teach. Fixing a dripping tap, for example. Diversity training isn’t so straightforward. As human beings, we all come hardwired with our own personal viewpoints and experiences, and our own conscious and unconscious biases. This doesn’t make us bad people. It just makes us human.

Thanks to our culture, upbringing, and environment, our brain makes decisions for us, without us even realizing it. This is great in so many ways, but not so great when it comes to challenging and changing preconceptions around diversity.

We’re complex creatures. And to expect a one-hour workshop or “Diversity Day” to unravel and address (not to mention attempt to change) every individual member’s unique psychological profile and how it relates to diversity and inclusion would be impossible.

But there’s still a lot that can be done to impact the way managers grow and lead diverse teams. Generally speaking, the most effective approach according to industry research is to combine formal training with other diversity initiatives carried out over a significant period of time. And to blend both the theories behind diversity, equity, and inclusion with a practical approach towards developing skills and behaviors associated with everyday tasks and decision making.

To get you started, we’ve pulled together a few ideas:

Clarify the “why”: Build a shared understanding by explaining why diversity and inclusion are important — both on a personal and a company level.

Grow knowledge: Encourage leaders to become more informed about the social issues and struggles their employees might face. And inspire them to keep on top of developments and changes to legislation that might impact them. (TED Talks, for example, are a great way to do this).

Highlight the impact: Show managers how their actions or decisions can affect members of their team differently.

Develop and apply self-awareness: Help managers identify and address their own biases before they address team members. A good way of doing this is to ask a few simple, self-reflective questions before making a comment, decision, or announcement. For example:

  • Am I basing what I plan to say on fact, or is this something I think I know?
  • Is there another way of interpreting this information?
  • Why am I saying this? Is there a personal reason behind my message?

Another tactic is to fill in a thought journal where managers can log potential examples of stereotyping to increase awareness.

Take your time: Manage your managers’ expectations. Improving diversity can’t and won’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual process. Remind your managers of this and reassure them that it’s ok to take things slowly and steadily. They might not see immediate progress, but their input and ongoing influence will make a difference.

How to build a successful diversity and inclusion training program for managers

To truly boost diversion and inclusion in the workplace, we need to give employees — starting with our managers — solutions, not abstract ideas. If you’re designing a diversity and inclusion training program for your managers, here are ten practical training topics you might want to include:

  1. The correct use of pronouns: How using gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronouns supports a more inclusive culture.
  2. A guide to inclusive communications: What to consider when drafting documents, emails, policies, and presentations — from choosing images to getting the wording right.
  3. Saying no to prohibitive language: Using persuasive (rather than instructive) language when talking about diversity and diversity training in the workplace.
  4. Holding honest and open meetings: Making group gatherings a supportive, safe, and genuine environment for the sharing of ideas, questions, and opinions.
  5. The art of asking and listening: Getting to know individual employees better (personality traits, behaviors, expectations, and experiences) by asking open questions and actually listening to the answers.
  6. Building diverse teams: Looking outside boundaries to form cross-functional teams that are empowered to make decisions and solve problems as a group.
  7. Celebrating everyday diversity: Ways to recognize and celebrate diversity in the workplace. This could include creating a calendar that highlights religious and cultural holidays, special events and practices, as well as other diverse heritage themes.
  8. Cultivating cultural humility: How to foster continued curiosity around cultural differences.
  9. Managing internal biases: Understanding biases (unconscious and conscious) — why they exist, how they operate, and how to overcome them.
  10. Hiring for diversity and inclusion: From job descriptions and applications to shortlisting and interviews, how to attract the best talent and grow diverse, inclusive teams.

Once you’ve nailed the content of your management training program, it’s time to consider how it should be delivered. Make sure to set clear goals and use different tools, resources, and formats to accommodate all learning types and environments. Your managers are busy people. You need to deliver a training program that reflects that.

And don’t forget technology. Technology provides a safe, secure, and neutral platform for training, ideal for potentially emotionally charged training, such as diversity or unconscious bias.

A long-term commitment

As we’ve seen, growing and sustaining diverse and inclusive teams isn’t something that can be achieved overnight (or as part of a Dunder Mifflin-style “Diversity Day”). It takes time, careful planning, and the active and informed engagement of your managers. They’re key to its success.

Which is why it’s important to keep them on board. Set benchmarks and track progress and feedback on what’s working and what’s not. Cultivate a culture of accountability, celebrate milestones and successes, but be ready to change direction (and to take them along with you) when you need to. The journey may be long, but every step is a step in the right — and only — direction.

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