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Weaving diversity and inclusion into learning and development

Last November I had the opportunity to present a session at SDF’s annual conference, and my topic was how equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) can and should run strategically through every aspect of learning and organisational development.

In my experience, conversations with L&D professionals often reveal how EDI efforts are channelled into gateway moments relating to the employee lifecycle (eg inclusive recruitment training), or into building awareness and understanding of hot topics such as bias, allyship, or privilege.  Undeniably, this is valuable work, but a wider reflection on the relationship between EDI and L&D should also be on the cards if diversity and inclusion is to be central to the way in which we do business. L&D professionals are pivotal to this effort.

Embedding EDI within L&D can be approached in many ways and on many levels, but these are my reflections on three areas of focus:

  • unleashing diverse talent
  • designing and delivering for everyone, and
  • L&D knowledge and awareness of EDI.

Bringing L&D and EDI together to unleash diverse talent doesn’t mean teaching that diverse talent how to ‘make it’ in the current organisational culture. It means looking at all training and development through an EDI lens — to better support all those within the organisation, including, but not exclusively those who have to expend greater energy navigating the workplace.

Critically, it also means increasing EDI awareness and accountability of employees who are learning leadership, managerial, and supervisory skills – so that they can create a sense of belonging, and a culture of respect in which diverse talent can thrive.

Where should you focus your attention?

Firstly, qualitative and quantitative data are important to help pinpoint challenges and design tailored L&D responses.  For example:

  • what does data tell you about who is/isn’t attracted or recruited?
  • who is promoted?
  • who leaves, and who stays?
  • what does a performance review look like through a diversity lens?
  • (how) do you know whether the experience, skills and abilities of ALL high-potential  colleagues are being used most effectively?
  • what information do you have about the experiences of employees from different groups, around whether they feel they belong, whether their ideas are heard, and whether their authentic contribution is valued?

When considering how to unleash diverse talent, we should be mindful of our training on key policies and processes too.  I came across an interesting example of how the L&D and EDI functions at a large ecommerce business partnered to make a process and the training around that process more equitable and inclusive. This related to the terminology used in performance reviews.  Data revealed that the biggest opportunity area for most women was to improve their confidence; however, ‘confidence’ is problematic as it means different things to different people.  A deeper dive found that the challenge for women of colour was that, rather than being perceived as lacking confidence, they were (stereotypically) seen as being ‘over-confident’.  So, to offer advice to ‘speak up more’ would be misplaced and incongruous.  As a result, the L&D team revisited the content of their Performance Review training and incorporated a broader discussion around how people identify, and what that could mean for the notion of ‘confidence’.

Nudges are a helpful tool to impact the mindsets and consequent behaviours of line managers and so build an inclusive culture which unleashes talent.  For example, top tips sheets or messaging can frequently remind us about small acts which create a sense of belonging (e.g. giving credit, amplifying voices, inviting junior colleagues to meetings).  Similarly prompts can encourage leaders and managers to check themselves for bias at every decision (e.g. ‘am I reacting in the way that I always react, or am I thinking outside the box?’  ‘Who can give us an alternative perspective on this decision?’).

Looking at training, other learning programmes, and resources – how do we design and deliver for everyone, and how do we create an inclusive learning culture?

Psychological safety enables people to participate fully in a learning and training environment where they are comfortable and supported to contribute their ideas, experiences and concerns.  This feeds into a positive culture of knowledge and innovation for everyone.  We know that employees from minoritised or marginalised groups who don’t feel they ‘fit’ with organisational norms, have a longer leap to achieve a sense of belonging, and without psychological safety in the learning environment, this can be accentuated.

Psychological safety in diversity-related training is achieved in several ways. This includes:

  • asking learners to sign up to a code of acceptable behaviour
  • giving them (at least) some ownership in terms of what and how they learn
  • active facilitation of a constructive exchange of views
  • ensuring that all voices are heard and valued
  • addressing the reality that some topics and conversations will be triggering – for both those who have experienced discrimination and those who haven’t.

Representation of diversity and an inclusive approach are important in all training and learning resources – in terms of who is involved and visible, and how different identities are presented.  And this relates to design, content, materials, facilitation styles and trainer identities.

Key questions are

  • Who is present or reflected in language, imagery, case studies, scenarios, examples, and how?
  • Is diversity shown in a positive light, without stereotyping or bias?
  • Do your icebreakers or activities inadvertently “other” some employees?
  • Who are your trainers? Whose voices are invited to teach or facilitate programmes (and whose are not)?

Turning finally to knowledge and awareness of EDI

Learning and Development professionals cannot weave that golden thread of inclusion without a certain level of personal understanding, confidence and comfort around EDI topics.  That applies broadly, whether training staff on EDI, designing learning responses to support the careers of minoritised and marginalised employees, or contributing to the development or implementation of inclusive processes.  What do you need to know about EDI, and how can you use that information to create inclusive solutions?  Of course, this is a never-ending journey as we always have more to learn about difference.  But reflecting on these questions appropriately closes this article, and is a positive starting point for those personal journeys:

  • How do your own identity and experience affect your professional approach?
  • What is your knowledge, awareness, comfort and confidence around EDI topics? And where are your gaps or triggers?
  • What one thing can you do to grow, from a personal perspective?

About the author: Ann Allcock is Head of Diversity at Marshalls E-Learning Consultancy, a specialist diversity and inclusion e-learning and training provider, where she leads on facilitated EDI training and wider consultancy within HE and across other sectors.  At Marshalls Ann advises clients on diversity and inclusion strategy and actions, creates bespoke learning resources, and facilitates workshops to enhance employee knowledge and understanding of diversity and inclusion, enabling everyone to play their part in creating workplaces where all can thrive. Ann enjoys living in Brighton and Hove.  She is a keen runner, and on sunny, calm days is a sea swimmer.

You can see details of our Let’s Talk about Race e-learning module here.  

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We work with organisations in all sectors because no one can be complacent when it comes to inclusion! Our courses and resources include: Let’s talk about race, unconscious bias, allyship, inclusive leadership, conscious inclusion, and microaggressions.

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You can download our compilation of most recent Diversity Nudges here.