DEI Training Topics: 5 Conversations Your Workforce Should Have - Senior Executive

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DEI Training 8 min

DEI Training Topics: 5 Conversations Your Workforce Should Have

The topics of your company’s DEI workshops will depend on what you hope to achieve. See five training topics to kickstart your efforts.

by Krystal Jagoo on May 25, 2022


  • Workers must understand how DEI training links back to individual roles

  • DEI training can unite workforces

  • Share your company’s most constructive DEI training topics

Diversity, equity and inclusion budgets are soaring.  In a 2021 global study of 227 senior DEI professionals, 77% reported budgets of over $10 million globally. At U.S.-based companies, 39% of senior DEI leaders reported budgets that exceeded $50 million. 

However, large budgets alone can’t guarantee outcomes. “Organizations that make the most impact are the ones that weave DEI efforts into all aspects of internal operations and external communities in which they operate,” says Yolánda Chase, chief diversity officer at Washington Technology Industry Association

Training your team builds the necessary foundation for successful D&I programs at your company. See five DEI training topics recommended by senior executives at leading companies. 

1. Unconscious Bias Training

Sometimes called implicit bias training, these sessions delve into how individuals may rely on stereotypes or assumptions that further oppress marginalized groups. Understanding these biases can help teams identify inequitable practices and start their journey toward change. 

“All employees go through unconscious bias training,” says Robin Lykins, chief people officer at a deep linking mobile platform Branch. “It is based on the experience of Nobel Prize-winning author, Daniel Kahneman.” 

K.C. Simmons, director of learning and development at Branch, further explains that the workshop dives into the neuroscience behind unconscious bias. That includes research studies, along with the three types of microaggressions, how to become an ally and the ladder of inclusion. 

“It’s super important for organizations and leaders to understand that this is a first step in a many-step journey,” says Gianna Driver, chief human resources officer at software company Exabeam. In this way, Driver hopes that training will allow for employees to have conversations that are grounded in the same vocabulary and understanding of one another. She views this as necessary when discussing everything from performance management to promotions or hiring, as Exabeam aspires to approach all of these areas through the lens of being more diverse and inclusive.

2. Inclusive Communication

Sometimes called inclusive language training, inclusive communication sessions deconstruct how words may unknowingly alienate certain groups while prioritizing others. Inclusive communication helps your team use language rooted in belonging. 

“We have utilized time to explore the origin of certain expressions and their impact on various groups — whether in reference to women, LGBTQIA+, race, ethnicity or others,” says Dr. Lusharon Wiley, vice president of corporate culture at Innisfree Hotels. She says inclusive communication allows her team to examine expressions and terms that may be embedded with historically-influenced biases. As staff navigate the learning process, change often occurs incrementally in small and large group sessions. 

“Being able to integrate DEI training into what we call interview training, which is our basics for managers on how to conduct interviews,” says Lykins. “If you have alignment with your leadership, and they see the business value, it’s easy to weave these things into the work.”

Lykins notes how training includes interactive breakout sessions like “Your Trusted People” where employees look at who is in their circle of trust to highlight how trust may be assigned based on who looks like them, which can help individuals to acknowledge their biases. “In interview training, we focus on why it’s critical to evaluate skills and competencies for the role rather than perceptions and how to share unbiased feedback on candidates for internal discussion,” she says.

3. Cultural Competency

While cultural competence was originally used in healthcare settings, such training has gained credibility among business leaders across industries. Cultural competency is a tool that equips teams to work with people from different backgrounds by improving self-awareness of one’s own culture. This training can prevent offending others, both intentionally and accidentally. 

“When we talk about cultural competence, a fact sheet about different countries and a fact sheet about different communities is not enough to really train people,” says Ashley Blackmon, diversity, equity and belonging program manager at vertical farming company Plenty. While the company only operates in the U.S. at present, Blackmon notes that her team aspires to be a company that is global eventually, so leaders ensure that every team member is culturally competent and self-aware to check their own biases. 

“The core principles of leading organizational change apply to DEI work,” says Chase, who also founded an HR strategy and consulting firm, Diversity Way-Maker Consulting

Chase’s consultancy trains and coaches C-suite leaders in values-based competencies. “When top leaders are fully on board and understand their role in championing DEI strategy, they will unabashedly and vocally advocate for change,” she says. 

4. Empathy and Belonging

These sessions are grounded in the understanding that empathy can drive actions that improve belonging for more marginalized groups. Empathy and belonging training encourages individuals to engage in dialogue and understand perspectives different from their own. 

“We truly believe that cultural competence and inclusive communication is that baseline learning that every organization, and…every team member in our organization has to ensure that we are a company that understands and leads with empathy,” says Blackmon. “We really need a layered learning journey that reinforces those types of behaviors and those competencies that we actually want to see across the organization.”

Given how empathy can drive change, it is no wonder that Wiley wishes the public better understood that diversity results in greater profit. “The more diverse the people are at the table, the more diverse the thoughts, the richer the discussion and the greater the reach. In this world of globalization, diversity and inclusion matter now more than ever. When team members feel valued, heard and included, the synergy they create is an unstoppable force,” says Wiley. 

As an example, Wiley shares how a recent exercise asked corporate managers to think critically about privilege, including how it is defined, and its impact on individual development and access to opportunity. “This powerful topic forced team members to examine their backgrounds in the context of advantages they might have experienced when compared with others,” she says.

5. Training and Professional Development through Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

Sometimes called affinity groups, ERG gatherings may offer an opportunity for marginalized groups to connect with others who share their lived experiences. Supporters and allies may also participate, even if they are not a member of the minority group. ERGs often provide professional development opportunities, mentorship and insights for necessary DEI training. 

It is important for leaders to keep the continued importance of ERGs at the forefront of their DEI training. Certain groups have been oppressed historically and continue to face marginalization, making ERGs necessary for promoting more equitable outcomes. 

“We have recently launched an umbrella organization internally called Community Council,” says Driver. This currently includes the following ERGs: ExaGals, which is focused on women; a Pride ERG, which is for the LGBTQIA+ community and allies; and a Veterans ERG. Driver notes that they are in the midst of adding a Latinx ERG and an Afro ERG, as a way to further engage their various communities, who may have unique needs from other internal groups. 

Driver shares a visualization exercise from their DEI training which asks participants to close their eyes as they are told a story in which they are late for a flight, rushing through a busy airport, but finally settle in and hear the pilot welcome them aboard. When they arrive, they rush off the plane and attend a keynote talk given by the CEO of one of Silicon Valley’s hottest startups, then head to a fancy restaurant, where a couple celebrates their wedding anniversary. 

“Then we ask DEI workshop participants to open their eyes. We ask them: Who was the pilot? Was the pilot a female? Was the tech CEO female? Black? Latinx? Was the couple celebrating their anniversary two men? Two women?” says Driver. “We then go into empathy-building by talking about how marginalized groups — Black folks, Latinx folks, same-sex couples, etc. — might feel in these situations with these assumptions. Then there are breakout groups to dive deeper.”

Blackmon says her team is training managers on emotional intelligence and inclusive management, which is crucial for engaging ERGs well. “For example, if you are a manager, are you going to advocate for the people on your team and what does that look like?” Blackmon explains. “Again, based on those intersecting identities, and if you aren’t working with a peer, what does it mean to be an advocate for marginalized groups?”

When developing your diversity training programs, ask your ERG leaders for guidance. Members of your company’s ERGs will be able to identify which topics are most relevant to your company to help you decide what to focus on first.

Leaders, please share DEI training topics and tactics that have worked best — or, heck, worst, too — at your organization.

DEI Think Tank is an invitation-only membership community for chief diversity officers and senior-level DEI leaders at large organizations. Coming Spring 2023.

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