Why doesn’t Diversity and Inclusion training work?

Published on July 30th, 2021

There’s an elephant in the room when we talk about diversity and inclusion training. It’s a massive elephant that we’re all pretending we can’t see. L&D and HR professionals are aware of it, senior leaders are aware of it. Diversity and inclusion champions are struggling to get around it. Everyone who has ever done diversity training is probably in on the secret too.  

Diversity and inclusion training doesn’t work. 

If you prefer video over text, we made a short under 4 min video for you:

Little impact

The content is usually excellent, the facilitators passionate and engaging, the activities are fun and challenging. Even the feedback sheets at the end of the session imply that this has been great training. But even in organizations where D&I training is mandatory, nothing changes. The same micro-aggressions, the same unconscious bias, the same in-group cliques, the same imbalance in the board room and in pay and bonus data.   

The problem is that there are two types of employee – those who are engaged with D&I (the minority) and those that aren’t. The engaged employees have little to learn – they are allies and champions, they try to counter their biases, they are intentionally inclusive in behavior and speech – and they attend D&I training enthusiastically, resolving to be even better. 

But the majority does the training because they must. If it’s eLearning, they skip to the quiz, and make a good effort at writing in sensible answers until they get a pass mark. Even well-meaning employees don’t expect to retain much from the training.  

And does anyone really believe that a homophobe or a racist or a misogynist will suddenly become reformed after a one-hour eLearning or even a half day of training? 

Learning how adults learn

A fundamental principle of andragogy – the science of how adults learn – is that adults must want to learn.  Prof. Malcolm Knowles, the educational psychologist was one of the most prominent researchers into adult learning, identifying that learners must be motivated and be able to apply learning to their own real-life problems. For most people, D&I training is too abstract and doesn’t give them a solution to their challenges. Even for those who have experienced discrimination or abuse, the training doesn’t give them anything useful. 

We need to re-think how we do D&I training so that we reach the majority of well-meaning, but reluctant learners. Busy people, who at their core, want to be just and equitable, but need to get on with their jobs without too many irrelevant distractions.

What’s the real problem?

As is the case with any form of training, we must go to the central question: what is the problem we are trying to solve? If we can define that we can begin to think about how we engage learners in finding a solution. In fact, asking the question shows us that much of our training is doomed to failure. An in-house training program cannot solve the structural inequalities in society, it won’t change government policy and won’t persuade those who have no interest in change.   

This does not mean, however, that we should give up and abandon all efforts to foster equity and inclusion. It just means that we need a different approach.

Finding a solution

If a segment of your workforce is disengaged, disappointed, and disenfranchised not only do you lose their productivity, but you also lose their potential. If an employee is asked to go on a course to increase their productivity and the potential of their team, their expectations are that this will help them progress. 

We also need to reframe the problem. If adult learners want solutions to everyday problems, let’s make sure that inclusion training addresses these challenges. If we frame the learning objectives in terms of increasing efficiency, increasing team engagement, leveraging the best talent we can get leadership buy-in.   

A top-down approach

We also need to re-visit the content of training. The 70:20:10 model of learning advocated by Charles Jennings proposes that we learn most when we learn in the flow of our work, inspired by the actions and examples of those around us. There are two key points we can draw out of this. 

Firstly, if the leadership of your organization does not embody intentional and meaningful inclusion, the culture will not change. Paying lip-service to abstract principles and clever value statements that mean nothing will counteract the benefits of even the best training. Start with high impact coaching with the leaders and ensure that they have bought into the benefits of inclusion – increased creativity, wider talent pool, increased performance, and efficiency. Link their behaviors and communication to the bottom line and the organizational culture can change dramatically.

Making diversity and inclusion rewarding

Secondly, if you do training, there must be practical relevance to everyone’s work. And that may mean that there is not a one-size-fits-all course; and it may mean that you can’t buy an off-the-shelf product. Content that details the various types of unconscious bias and defines the nine protected characteristics has an abstract value but does not help me work better.    

Far better to present a real work challenge and lead the learner through the process of increasing productivity or efficiency through inclusive choices; challenge learners to reflect on how their own work situations could be better through intentional inclusion. “Diversity fatigue” comes about when the diversity agenda appears to be irrelevant or placing barriers in the way of work. 

D&I training is often too long and is weighed down with legal definitions and obligations. Instructional designers are creative enough to find alternative ways to meet the compliance requirements without negating the enthusiasm of learners. Short videos and problem-solving challenges rather than lecture plus multiple choice; build in accountability for applying the learning and encourage learners to share their experience of successes. 

By showing learners there is value to them in doing the right thing, learning transforms from a chore into a positive experience with a clear value proposition. 

The ethical dimension

To be absolutely clear – there is an obvious ethical and moral obligation on all of us to celebrate diversity and increase equity in treatment of all, and particularly to redress the historical discrimination against the under-represented and disenfranchised. However, in order to reach reluctant learners, those who resist their better natures, we have to build training that incentivizes them to learn and change.   

And a further note of warning – don’t put the burden for validating, verifying, or creating content on the people who are most often impacted by non-inclusive behaviors. Too often, black employees are asked to make themselves vulnerable and tell their stories of abuse; trans staff are asked to talk about their pain of rejection; women invited to share their frustrations about pay negotiations.   

In her book, Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, Reni Eddo-Lodge writes: ‘Worse still is the white person who might be willing to entertain the possibility of … racism, but who thinks we enter this conversation as equals. We don’t.’ By putting the burden of explanation on those who are discriminated against, we are putting responsibility for the problem on them as well. Often, they are asked to contribute without reward or recognition of the potential face threat in being presented as a victim. Start your organization’s path to equity by being sensitive in using employees’ stories. 

We have had nearly 20 years of diversity training that has changed little. Business has the power to change society. As workplaces become more inclusive, society will change too. Even the best D&I training cannot take sole responsibility for rebalancing structural inequities in society; however, it can make a small contribution to stepping in the right direction. 


Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.

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