DEI training has largely been ineffective, says L&D expert Anthony Santa Maria. However, new advancements in immersive technology are paving a path forward for HR teams.
There has been a deluge of negative headlines in the world of DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), from budget and headcount cuts to political attacks and critiques that raise doubts about the effectiveness of DEI training. One of the latest is last month’s Wall Street Journal article on Why DEI Training Doesn’t Work—and How to Fix It.1
The authors examined explicit DEI prejudice, implicit bias, and systemic discrimination, illustrating that many have stalled over the years. They have arguably gotten worse in some cases—even with the resourcing and attention given to DEI over the last few years. But why?
The authors contend that DEI training programs must catch up on two fronts. First, traditional DEI training uses implicit bias education to shame trainees for holding stereotypical views. Second, too much current DEI workplace training focuses on solving the problem of that bias by invoking the legal consequences of not addressing it.
There’s much for those involved in DEI to reflect on here. Suppose your primary approach to training your team is designed to make them feel negative about themselves. In that case, it will likely result in them dismissing your message and becoming cautious about the topic you encourage them to discuss openly.
Shaming people and legal scare tactics don’t work.
Threats of punishment almost automatically prompt what psychologists call “reactance,” 2 where people reject the behavior they feel is being imposed on them (“Nobody’s telling me what I can’t say!”). We have inadvertently opened up a chasm—one big enough to jeopardize the whole DEI training project. And, in the current economy,3 DEI appears to be threatened with cancellation or paused.
As someone who works at an organization that addresses DEI issues at major U.S. brands, I agree with the article’s analysis of the overall lack of progress with DEI over the years. The authors point out that ultimately, DEI training, as it is currently done, “can’t squelch implicit bias; nothing short of changing people’s life experiences can do that.”
Where I take issue is that it’s not only essential to address implicit bias, but it’s demonstrably possible. I say this based on observation of numerous training approaches to fostering a diversity conversation in the workplace that are far more effective and less finger-wagging than the status quo techniques laid out in the article.
The reality is that not all implicit bias training is doomed to failure. The challenge is not with the training but with how it is done. And while we can’t change people’s life experiences, we can help people expand their understanding of life experiences different than their own.
It’s time for a new era of DEI.
We must reevaluate our methods as DEI teams and budgets are under intense scrutiny. This assessment starts by getting the correct answers to critical questions like, Who is this training for? What do we hope to accomplish? How do our training goals support organizational outcomes? And finally, what are the best and most impactful approaches to delivering training across an organization?
In the early days of the pandemic and following George Floyd’s murder, many companies publicly committed to DEI efforts. Companies rolled out audits, unconscious bias training, and more. However, many of these efforts mirrored those from years before–often conducted as a one-and-done, check-the-box sessions without connection to any broader strategy with defined business goals and outcomes.
In many of these efforts, the focus was just recruitment and hiring, leading to disproportionately high numbers of historically underestimated groups in junior employment levels and experiencing higher turnover than other populations.
While organizations improved how they sourced talent, for the most part, they didn’t quite crack the code on how to keep them. The error lies in failing to recognize that equity and inclusion must seamlessly integrate into a company’s culture, policies, and individual working methods. For DEI efforts to make an impact, leaders need to embed it into all business and people decisions. Core to this is training managers and people leaders who are vital in hiring, promoting, and managing employees. Manager buy-in and support are essential to ensure your efforts are successful across teams and departments.
We’ve found that managers and people leaders significantly impact the creation of a diverse and inclusive workplace culture. Given that organizations often have limited training time, budget, and resources, it is essential to center DEI and human skill training on this pivotal group.
It also makes sense as poor manager buy-in to DEI can reflect a broader unwillingness to work with how people want to be managed. High-performing individual contributors tend to progress to management positions without developing the necessary skills and experiences to lead teams effectively. While these individuals are highly skilled in their specific areas of expertise, they often lack the socio-emotional skills required to lead effectively and drive DEI change.
A Gallup survey found that 50% of employees who quit are quitting their boss, not their job. 4 Maybe it’s no surprise that manager performance accounts for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. The most common reasons employees cite for quitting a job is not feeling valued (54%), followed by a lack of a sense of belonging at work (51%). These results point to a skills gap in empathetic leadership.
Critically, being an empathetic manager is challenging. Managers are overwhelmed and overworked and need more training to lead and mentor people with varied working styles. Those involved with DEI training need to reconsider how this expanded training is deployed to make it relevant, timely, and less time-consuming for busy and burnt-out managers.
DEI training should be embedded throughout the talent lifecycle.
It’s time to embark on a new era of DEI that is not only about recognizing and building knowledge about bias but actively addressing it and making DEI an integral part of how a company operates.
One of the pivotal strategies for this approach is to equip managers and people leaders with the necessary skills to navigate the complexities of DEI effectively. These skills are not a one-time acquisition but a continuous journey, requiring reinforcement and practice across crucial moments in the talent lifecycle.
For example, new managers should receive specialized DEI training beyond the basics when they step into their roles. This training equips them with the knowledge and tools to lead with empathy, handle diversity-related challenges, and create inclusive team dynamics. It sets the tone for their leadership style, ensuring that DEI becomes an inherent part of their management approach right from the start.
For existing managers, the DEI skills journey is equally important. DEI training shouldn’t be a one-time event but a continuous process. It’s about honing and translating their skills into daily actions and behaviors. Regular training sessions and workshops should be available to refine these skills and stay up-to-date with evolving DEI strategies.
To make DEI skills practical and accessible, they should also be made available just in time and in the workflow. Managers need the flexibility to access quick training modules before critical moments like one-on-one meetings or performance reviews. Concise, on-demand resources can provide guidance and solutions tailored to their specific challenges, helping them effectively address DEI concerns in real time.
Embedding DEI skills in these critical moments of the talent lifecycle ensures that diversity and inclusion become ingrained in an organization’s everyday operations. It’s not a separate initiative but a part of the very fabric of how managers lead, interact with their teams, and support individual growth. This approach fosters an inclusive workplace culture that values diversity and actively addresses bias, ultimately driving positive change and aligning with organizational success for all.
Build emotional “muscle memory.”
The problem is that there hasn’t always been a great solution to help them achieve this standard of training. Immersive learning is emerging as a powerful delivery vehicle for such empathetic skill-building. Immersive learning can alter people’s perceptions by helping individuals move from bias awareness to changing behaviors to act more equitably and inclusively. These outcomes occur because immersive tech is proven to drive greater memory retention and emotional resonance with the learning content. It builds what is akin to muscle memory, with learners being empowered with a new repertoire of responses when DEI situations occur in real life.
Immersive learning is an approach that spans virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR), augmented reality (AR), and 360-degree video, all leveraging the power of “presence” to create a truly experiential learning environment. Doing so allows learners, including your hiring and talent development teams, to experience a scenario from multiple sensory angles and perspectives, making them feel “there” and in the moment.
For example, it can help you experience how bias can affect a job interview and how to advocate for others in the interview process—like being a Latino man applying for a Senior Engineering role and navigating an interview by an all-white interview panel. Or you could take the viewpoint of an Asian-American recruiter working at the same company who has the opportunity to advocate against racial bias in her company’s interview process.
This new style of L&D can influence people’s feelings, so tackle implicit bias and genuinely move the needle on your DEI training. Among the companies we work with, we’ve found that after just three immersive learning experiences, our learners were 77% more empathetic and 73% more likely to identify inequity factors and feel more confident in taking informed action for equity and inclusion. Moreover, even eight months after completing a learning journey, we still see sustained behavior change. Notably, for one of our customers, more than half of learners say they noticed changes in their entire organization—including management, individual contributors, and senior leaders.
These tangible metrics show that there is more than one way to build DEI capability in your workplace. If your current solutions aren’t working, it’s time to get new and better ones.
In today’s ever-evolving workplace, companies recognize the immense value of integrating DEI principles into manager skills training to empower their managers as inclusive leaders. Our experience shows that by leveraging the empathetic power of immersive learning, DEI principles and essential skills can become an integral part of a manager’s daily work routine.
We can’t ignore the legal aspects.
Considering the recent Supreme Court ruling on Affirmative Action, we now face a new standard for handling discrimination suits, with a heightened focus on “meritocracy.”
While many organizations are reacting to pressure from groups who argue that DEI is, in itself, problematic, we actually can expect to see 5 an influx of lawsuits coming from members of underestimated groups and women who can prove that less qualified individuals received offers and promotions over them for no reason other than identity.
Indeed, countless studies show that white applicants are more likely than black applicants with identical work experiences to be invited for an interview or offered a job. More recently, a study 6 revealed that nonbinary applicants are less likely to receive an interview and are perceived to be less qualified by hiring managers just because of their gender identity.
The importance for individuals to better identify and resolve workplace bias has only heightened—and with it, the cost of getting it wrong. A greater willingness to understand other peoples’ perspectives and move beyond our prejudices fosters greater team collaboration, innovation, and overall success.
Future-proofing DEI means setting clear goals, especially around identifying and removing bias. By focusing on real-world circumstances that can help learners uncover implicit bias among themselves and colleagues in a safe, judgment-free environment, we have the path forward—all while staying compliant with the new legal landscape for discrimination suits and DEI pushback.
And given we are in Global Diversity Month, 7 isn’t this the perfect time to reevaluate your DEI programs and safeguard your organization’s future on this critical issue?
1 Why DEI Training Doesn’t Work—and How to Fix It, https://bit.ly/3QUYoIo, The Wall Street Journal, Mahzarin Banaji and Frank Dobbin, Sept. 17, 2023 10:00 am ET.
2 Reactance, https://bit.ly/3ssFM9k, Wikipedia, May 21, 2020.
3 How corporate America is slashing DEI workers amid backlash to diversity programs, https://bit.ly/3sqdOez, ABC News, Kiara Alfonseca and Max Zahn, July 7, 2023.
4 Employees Want a Lot More From Their Managers, https://bit.ly/3MCLDQs, Gallup Workplace, Jim Harter and Amy Adkins, April 8, 2015.
5 After Affirmative Action: A Guide to Preserving Corporate DEI Programs, https://bit.ly/3u7yPuR, Northwestern University, Jim Bray.
6 Resumes with They/Them Pronouns More Likely to Be Ignored, https://bit.ly/47udYk2, SHRM, Matt Gonzales, July 25, 2023.
7 Global Diversity Month is October, https://bit.ly/3SBtNRv, National Today.