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A key component of any successful diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy is education and training. The only way to influence attitudes and workplace behavior is to set workplace expectations and give people the training they need to be successful. After more than three years of conducting transformative DEI training sessions, we’ve found that the most meaningful programs are those customized to fit the needs of each organization and team. Decades of research has also shown that workplace training programs have little impact if DEI isn’t integrated into the company’s culture. One-off sessions and compliance-based training won’t have the lasting impacts necessary to improve employee engagement, retention, innovation, and other bottom-line outcomes.   

In our work with more than 100 clients across the world, we’ve come up with 11 tips that will ensure your training doesn’t fall flat.

1) Customize your training.

DEI training should not be approached with a one-size-fits-all mindset. Several factors influence what type of training will be successful in your organization: size, industry, DEI competence, geographic location, previous DEI training efforts, leadership buy-in, roles within the organization, the current sociopolitical climate, and so on. 

At the very least, you must consider where your organization is on its DEI journey. If you’re just starting out, DEI training that reviews DEI definitions and concepts such as unconscious bias and systemic racism, might be a good place to start. If your organization already has a company-wide understanding of key terms and concepts, perhaps you move past the basics and conduct training on allyship or inclusive language. Ask yourself: What training is the company ready for?

If you have the bandwidth to conduct multiple training sessions, you should consider breaking individuals out based on their role within the organization – are they a frontline worker, middle manager, or senior leader? Based on their role, the training that appeals to – and is most effective for – them will differ. For instance, employees who interact with customers must be proficient in inclusive language, but might not need to understand how to establish a supplier diversity program. In order to gain C-suite buy-in, DEI training for leaders should include the business case for DEI. Finally, middle managers might benefit from training on leading multigenerational teams. 

Business woman leading a workplace training

2) Make your training recommended, but optional.

While this may seem counterintuitive, training is most effective when it is not mandatory. In fact, mandatory training often increases resistance and defensiveness. While there may be some instances where training is required, such as for the recruiting team, training almost always should be optional. In order to boost attendance, senior leaders throughout the organization should participate to serve as a model for the rest of the employee base. Additionally, you might consider incentivizing attendance by providing lunch at training events or giving away attendance prizes at each training session.

3) Focus on the human component.

Remind people that despite having different values, beliefs, backgrounds, races, gender identities, sexual orientations, or cultures, we are all human. We are more similar than we are different. When people disagree wholeheartedly on an issue, it’s easy to vilify and otherize each other. Reminding folks of our shared humanity helps increase empathy and understanding.

4) Amplify underrepresented voices.

Make sure to include underrepresented voices in your training, whether the speaker is an employee or outside expert. As stated by disabilities rights activist James Charlton, “nothing about us without us.” In other words, no policy, training, donation, or celebration should be decided or enacted without the full and direct participation of members of the group affected by that action. For instance, if you’re conducting an LGBTQ+ allyship session, hire an LGBTQ+ speaker; if you’re putting on an event for Black History Month, involve Black employees at your company in the planning process.

5) Teach people how to respond when x, y, or z happens.

For instance, not knowing how to respond when a coworker comes “out,” can lead folks to do or say the wrong thing in the moment, perpetuating a non-inclusive company culture. Supply folks with a script and a few actions they can take to respond in this scenario. A simple formula people can use is 1) thank the person for trusting you, 2) ask how you can support them, and 3) depending on the situation, ask who else knows, so that you can protect their privacy and safety.

Some other events you might prepare folks for include witnessing a microaggression, experiencing harassment, and learning that a colleague is undergoing gender transition. 

6) Link to organizational values.

As with any DEI initiative, remind participants that the purpose of the training is not to change people’s minds, faith, or political choices. Rather, training sets expectations of behavior in the workplace. It is conducted so that people can better understand and respect each other while being held accountable for the organization’s mission, vision, and values.

Business woman leading a workplace DEI training

7) Establish learning agreements.

Start any DEI training session by establishing a safe space free of judgment and fear. Some recommended learning agreements include:

  • Assume positive intent.
  • Engage in dialogue, not debate.
  • Hold yourself and others accountable for demonstrating cultural humility.
  • Be open, transparent, and willing to admit mistakes.
  • Embrace the power of humble listening.
  • Create trusting and safe spaces – spaces where a little bit of discomfort is okay.
  • Commit to having conversations that matter by speaking up to bridge divides.

8) Share personal stories.

Research has shown that storytelling is one of the most powerful methods to increase empathy, change attitudes, and influence behavior. If you’re conducting a training on microaggressions, have someone share how experiencing microaggressions influenced their perceptions of belonging in the workplace. If you’re hosting a disability etiquette training, have someone from the disability community explain how people’s assumptions about their capabilities affected how they were perceived and treated at work.

9) Make sure the training is extensive.

For example, because of the historical lack of LGBTQ+ inclusivity training in organizations, many employees may enter the training with little to no previous knowledge. As such, it’s critical to cover as much material as possible without overwhelming new learners. A few pieces of information that you should aim to cover in this instance include terminology, pronouns, inclusive language, inclusive hiring practices, and policy and employee handbook updates.

We also recommend following up on any training with discussion sessions, reflection guides, or other activities. These follow-up opportunities solidify learning and ensure training doesn’t become a one-and-done approach. 

10) Pair concrete information with attainable, actionable takeaways.

Most DEI training is based on disseminating knowledge without providing post-training action items. Therefore, there is a lack of sustainable follow through because participants still have the question, “What do I do?” Make sure that you provide concrete next steps participants can take. For instance, at the end of an unconscious bias training, encourage folks to uncover their personal biases via Harvard’s implicit bias tests. After an allyship training, challenge participants to take one action that week to become a more active ally. 

11) Give space for questions and discussion.

As mentioned before, some people may be new to the information you’re providing and need permission to ask what’s on their mind. Others may need space to think aloud and process the information. Another group of folks might want to share their own personal stories. Take this opportunity to remind participants of the learning agreements, so people can ask questions and share thoughts openly and without fear of retaliation.

Organizations are in need of a more effective approach to DEI training in the workplace. By adopting the principles above, organizations can work towards more meaningful and impactful programs, fostering inclusivity and understanding among their workforce. If you’re interested in bringing customized DEI training to your organization, check out our workshops, online courses, and microlearning.


Kaela Sosa is co-founder and Manager, Curriculum and Programming at The Diversity Movement. Her expertise includes psychology, gender identity and sexual orientation and racial identities. Kaela has written and spoken about a range of topics: active allyship, the inclusive talent lifecycle, disability etiquette, LGBTQ+ inclusion and inclusive language. At The Diversity Movement, she leads the development and execution of learning programs, including digital learning, online courses, certificate programs and certification opportunities. Connect with or follow Kaela on Linkedin to learn more.

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