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The 2020 spotlight on racial inequality has inspired a new commitment to workplace diversity and inclusion, but already, we’re seeing a drop in engagement as corporate diversity programs struggle to make a difference.

As a Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and a CEO in the diversity space, it’s easy for me to see why those initiatives are failing, but I know it’s so much harder to understand when you’re in there, doing the work to win, and your initiatives are just not generating the results that you expected.

I’d like to share what I am hearing from my C-suite colleagues and what I am seeing unfold across the country as organizations begin to understand the business case for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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What’s the number one reason why diversity training programs often fail?

Most diversity programs aim to inspire empathy and understanding, working under the strong assumption that changing minds will change behavior as well. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support that claim. The key is to focus on systems and behavior instead. As David Rock and Khalil Smith expound in an article for Forbes, “getting people to care about an issue is the beginning of the journey, not the end.” Programs that focus on procedure, action, and behavior are simply more successful.

Your goal should be culture change through system change, not just compliance. Still, the vast majority of corporate programs provide only compliance-based diversity education without the comprehensive implementation that’s necessary for culture change. In 2016, Harvard Business Review was already pointing at the same problems and solutions. They wrote “The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash. Nonetheless, nearly half of midsize companies use it, as do nearly all the Fortune 500.”

What are the other reasons your DEI initiative might not be successful?


Executive resistance

C-suite buy-in is critical to DEI success. Model the behavior you want to see by investing in your personal education, allocating 2-3% of your budget for diversity efforts and working to develop a long-term diversity strategy that looks beyond one-off training sessions and compliance-based learning. You might consider diversity certification as well.

Diversity fatigue

It’s important to remember that most of your employees have already participated in more than one failed diversity training. Even before the seismic shift and social upheaval of 2020, American workers were feeling skeptical and weary of business-driven diversity learning. Also, what we know is that mandatory training almost never works. In fact, as Scientific American points out, it often exacerbates people’s biases instead. What do the experts recommend? Voluntary, organization-wide learning that encourages broad participation, connectivity exercises and action.

Lack of training for middle managers

Your middle managers are your frontline DEI workers. They are the people actively involved in daily operations, social interactions and on-the-ground activation of diversity strategy. In that way, they act as a critical link between C-suite imperatives and day-to-day behavior. By giving them the tools and education they need to build an inclusive workplace culture, you can create a sturdy scaffold for accountability and learning.

What should I do if I’m just starting a diversity and inclusion program?

Focus on culture and system change. To make a tangible, sustainable impact, your voluntary, organization-wide diversity learning must be paired with a top-down, data-driven diversity strategy that fully integrates throughout your organization. As tech CEO Travis Montaque wrote for Fortune, “business leaders should ask themselves how they can make systemic changes at the ground level that will hold everyone in the company accountable for working toward true diversity and equality.”

A recent article from Business News Daily emphasizes the need for continuous strategy alignment. “Instead of planning one-time workshops or an annual day of training,” they advise, “roll out a series of programs, events, celebrations, mentoring opportunities and other experiences for continual learning. Your strategy should continue the conversation with meaningful engagement after training and metrics to gauge effectiveness.

To learn the practical steps that you can take now to develop a truly sustainable diversity and inclusion program, download my recent white paper, 5-Step Roadmap to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Success in 2021.

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