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Learning Delivery

Diversity Is Learning’s Business

L&D teams have traditionally shied away from diversity and inclusion work. That’s starting to change as companies discover that difference is a source of competitive advantage.
diverse faces

In an increasingly polarized world, differences have become an opportunity to sow discord rather than promote dialogue.

This is particularly true in the workplace. In 2017, the #MeToo movement went viral, laying bare the scale of sexual harassment and abuse across the country, especially in the workplace. In today’s world of work, many employees post anonymous comments to employer review sites like Glassdoor or turn to chat forums like Blind to air grievances rather than confront their employers directly.

This mistrust is one of the reasons why diversity and inclusion has taken a new air of importance at work, yet many corporate learning and development functions have traditionally steered clear of the topic, leaving it to HR or a dedicated diversity function. According to Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer at social recognition provider Globoforce and former chief diversity officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance, organizations tend to treat L&D and D&I as independent functions within HR.

With the convergence of social change and the evolution of D&I training, the time is ideal for L&D teams to partner to create programs and approaches to promote differences as a source of competitive advantage rather than continued conflict.

From Anti-Harassment to Unconscious Bias 

It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that some American businesses took a serious look at diversity in the workplace. Jennifer Brown, CEO of diversity consulting firm Jennifer Brown Consulting, said diversity training started primarily as anti-harassment training designed to protect companies against civil rights lawsuits. This focus treated the symptoms rather than the illness, she said. Instead of teaching employees to understand and respect diversity, they were teaching them not to attack it.

“A lack of understanding of inclusion leads to toxic work environments where harassment actually happens,” she said.

In recent years, the focus has shifted to unconscious bias. Teaching employees to acknowledge and understand the biases they bring to work helps them better understand the different experiences that others have in the workplace, the argument goes. Leaders who better understand their biases are able to build teams with more diversity of thought, thereby leading to more collaboration and innovation.

“When you check your own bias as a leader, you may realize that you have some flawed assumptions, like if you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and keep your head down and work hard, it will be its own reward,” Brown said. “This is not true for anybody but white, straight, able-bodied cisgender men.”

To be an inclusive leader is to be aware of differences, your own biases, and where and when they might materialize. However, unconscious bias training is not the end for diversity training. According to Brown, it often fails to tackle tough challenges, such as how to change behavior over time, keep bias in check, seek and value greater diversity and create inclusive environments.

From Diversity to Inclusion

Doug Harris, CEO at consulting firm Kaleidoscope Group, said it’s important to do more than just educate people. “Education is about learning something,” Harris said. “Preparation is preparing to do something.”

According to Harris, preparation starts with making sure everyone is learning from and teaching one another. “I might be keenly aware of African American issues because I’m African American but stepping on women all day long because I’m unaware of women’s issues,” Harris said. “So even when you get it, there’s a misunderstanding of how far that goes.”

Harris said companies should focus on what he calls “conscious inclusion” to move from abstract concepts to behavior change. Conscious inclusion incorporates five principles: demonstrating empathy, authentically communicating, embracing differences, managing privilege and acting courageously. The key is to help people grow rather than focus on correcting them, he said.

Brian Miller, vice president of talent, development and inclusion at biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, said a focus on behavior change is about asking people to be accountable for their actions but also to reflect on their previous behavior in order to change it.

Pemberton said a call to action can propel people to change their behavior. “The #MeToo movement is a case in point,” Pemberton said. “While an organization can have policies and training in place to raise awareness, that is not the same as changing behaviors, including taking action against offenders.”

Movements like #MeToo can teach organizations how to punish harassment but also how to move beyond punishment in order to support inclusion and safety. “When ideal behaviors and core values are integrated with ongoing communications and learning programs, change happens more quickly and good behaviors become the norm,” Pemberton said.

Reverse mentorship is another method to teach inclusion in a positive and continous way. For example, Brown said, if you’re a white man, being mentored by someone with a different identity is a way to move beyond unconscious bias and build a trusting relationship with a person through whom you can see another perspective.

Beyond strengthening individual relationships, leaders can use reverse mentorship to build an understanding of the impact of diversity across the board. Specifically, they can become more aware of inclusion during the hiring process in order to build a more robust and diverse pipeline.

Diversity Best Practices’ 2017 “Inclusion Index” showed that while the percentage of men and women in nonmanager roles is nearly the same (51 percent men and 49 percent women), the executive pipeline is only 31 percent women versus 69 percent men.

As a result, companies struggle to fill a quota with one of the few women they have. While the intent is positive, the results can be negative. “It’s not fair to her and it’s horrible when it doesn’t work, which it often does not,” Brown said. “She becomes a lesson: ‘We’re not going to do that again.’ ”

Recruiting and developing a diverse pool of talent requires long-term investment. To be effective, companies need to mentor women and people of color so they are not merely checking a box. That requires leaders to be aware that people of varying backgrounds and identities face different career obstacles in the hiring and onboarding process as well as in their advancement and development within the organization.

Brown said many leaders still struggle to understand how their biases impact interview and selection processes. “It’s the idea that if I intentionally give opportunities to people who don’t look like me and I use my power for that it’s going to mean less power for me,” she said.

Gilead Sciences built a diversity of thought toolkit to help leaders think about diversity and inclusion on a larger scale and examine their own biases. The toolkit includes assessment and application tools that address challenges like how to get a greater diversity of voices heard and defining what the end state should look like. Though it’s still early, Miller said they’re getting a large number of requests to implement the program.

Learning’s Role in D&I

In addition to helping leaders recognize and overcome their biases, CLOs can use their knowledge of the talent pool to ensure inclusion and diversity happen at the ground level. “You must know who is in jeopardy in your talent pool,” Brown said. “You must be selecting your [high-potential] lists with a positive bias toward diversity.”

According to Brown, learning programs should have a D&I lens on at all times. This means looking at who is in the room, who gets invited to programs and how leaders are being developed.

“Are we developing all of our leaders in the same way?” Brown said. “Is that the right answer? I would say no. Based on identity, there’s a vast number of people who are having very different experiences every day.”

Gilead is in the early stages of creating a network analysis map that will take the entire organization and cut the data to figure out whether certain groups are “on the inside or outside of certain decision-making networks and/or on the inside or outside of certain networks that drive innovation,” Miller said. That map can be analyzed by a number of factors such as race and gender. Tools such as the map can be used by learning organizations to build a more diverse talent pool of future leaders.

Another path toward building a diverse pool is by examining mentoring and sponsorship programs to see whether diversity conversations are scaring people away and encouraging leaders to ask themselves how they approach mentees of different backgrounds, according to Brown.

“Leaders should learn how can they be a productive leader to all types of talent, particularly talent that doesn’t look like them,” Brown said.

Brown also said CLOs and D&I teams need to look at the content of diversity training together to determine whether they’re addressing inclusive behaviors as a leadership competency and holding leaders accountable.

“The learning function has such an important role to play,” Brown said. “They’ve got to allow themselves to be taught so that they can be more inclusive in their designs in the content of the training for the organization and in their definition of what leadership looks like and how they measure the competencies.”

According to Miller, one of Gilead’s biggest implementation successes in the past couple of years was adding inclusion as a core competency. “It starts to change a bunch of things within the organization, including how we show up every day,” Miller said.

Harris said D&I is a central part of a broader approach to developing competencies, building relationships and engaging employees. “One of the things that would be most helpful for chief learning officers to understand is that diversity and inclusion education is really not a separate entity,” he said. “It’s looking at how does this help you empower all the competencies that you currently have in the organization.

“What chief learning officers can help with is not positioning [D&I] as an add on, but as an enabler,” Harris said.

Marygrace Schumann is a former editorial intern at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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