Five Oaks Consulting

Beyond Diversity Training – What Works (Part One)

Mandatory diversity training, the need for short-term wins and a nuanced approach to a global challenge

A guest blog post by Richard Eastmond; Richard is the former Senior Director for People, Operations and Corporate Services at Amnesty International. He currently serves as an independent consultant. Richard is solely responsible for the views expressed is this post.

Responding to Tosca’s challenge on (mandatory) diversity training

Tosca @ Five Oaks Consulting recently shared her practitioner knowledge on what works and what doesn’t in diversity training. Pushing back on common trends within INGOs, she argues that mandatory training doesn’t work and that singling out certain groups or people for such training is unlikely to produce meaningful change. However, voluntarily attending a diversity training strengthens a person’s resolve to do more to fight bias, while a broader focus on management systems, mentoring for all, behaviour modeling by influential people, and allyship is key to systemic change.

In this two-part blog post, I argue that there can be a place for mandatory diversity training and that there is plenty of reason to leave room for local nuance and interpretation of what diversity awareness means.

Part One: Short-Term Wins with a Long-Term Plan

Organizations are always in a hurry, and never more so than when they need to change. Whether engaging small, simple changes or addressing issues as complex as diversity, they have no time to wait for the “tide to turn”; action must be engaged now. In fact, getting started is extremely important, because these actions, over time, become embedded and are what influence long-term changes in behaviour. It’s getting started—especially when the undertaking can feel so monumental—that can be challenging.

When an organisation recognises that it must address a big issue like diversity, it needs to balance many different elements that, collectively, will contribute to systematic and deep-rooted change. Leadership must seek input and collaboration in order to generate a sense of cocreation and buy-in from all relevant stakeholders. The organization must establish clear best practices with expert input and embrace a fully intersectional approach. Taken together, these tasks can appear overwhelming, and oftentimes their execution reflects that reality—many elements will be left incomplete or even entirely neglected as the will to see them all through slowly dissipates.

Quick wins matter

Consequently, quick wins are never more important than when beginning the process of tackling an issue like diversity. To me, mandatory training, often seen as the ‘sheep dip,’ is an admittedly blunt instrument, but it also acts to highlight the importance of an issue. It demonstrates that the issue affects everyone, regardless of identity or station within the organization, and demonstrates that leadership is invested in making a significant change. While it is no ‘silver bullet,’ mandatory training has its place at the start of a change journey; the key is incorporating it into a mission-centred story that demonstrates the necessity of diversity and how it will benefit the organisation, its people, its partners, and its beneficiaries.

Key questions to answer

If you are looking into increasing diversity within your organization, here are two key questions to answer early and often throughout your journey:

  • How have you balanced a symbolic training intervention with a long-term, multi-pronged plan around promoting diversity in an INGO?
  • What leadership acts have helped or will help your organisation ensure a systemic change—namely embedding diversity and inclusion in all its forms—takes place?

I look forward to hearing your perspective: please reach out to me on LinkedIn with your responses.

Richard Eastmond, January 2021

For part two of Richard’s argument, check below.

3 thoughts on “Beyond Diversity Training – What Works (Part One)”

  1. Hi Richard, Nice piece! I also tend to be quite wary of the value of mandatory diversity trainings, but have come to appreciate that they have a role in the overall toolkit of organisational change towards the inclusive culture and practices that allow diversity to flourish. I like your description of them as a “symbol” of leadership commitment. They can do a bit more than this too–they can also provide some common language and concepts to help support other initiatives and interventions. One of the biggest problems, though, is that because they are so expensive (in terms of trainer and trainee time and coordination effort, and in terms of the effort needed to overcome initial resistance by some), they can loom much larger in the overall change process than is deserved by the amount of change that they achieve.

    1. Janet, thanks for commenting! I can totally see your and Richard’s points about the symbolism of leadership commitments, and the provision of shared language and concepts. I also found your point about relative cost compared to value offered interesting. However, we need to be realistic, based on how I see the research of 3-4 decades of experience with mandatory diversity training in the US at least (primarily private and government sectors) that any effects tend to be short lived and/other insignificant in scope, and that the mandatory aspect may actually backfire. I find it interesting that *if* managers sign up voluntarily, they then actually want to take away the distance between thinking and acting, and want to be seen as champions – and thus increase their effort and commitment. The research that I have seen says that this effect does not show up nearly as much with mandatory training. Anyway, it seems we all agree that a nuanced, as well as realistic approach, is best.

  2. Richard Eastmond

    To take this thinking a step further – let’s pose the challenge of assuming you don’t make the training mandatory: then what do you do from an organisational perspective with those managers who don’t act whether from lack of focus, because they believe they are already a beacon of excellence, or because they just don’t get around to it? Are you awaiting for peer pressure to help encourage the change? It is partly from a wish to not open this can of worms and some of the misconceptions that can flow that leads me back to the symbolic value of mandating training. At one level you could ask: is it so different from mandatory training around IT security that many would not blink at as appropriate?

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