Diversity training programs can be as different as the companies that introduce them.
Whatever form they take, a successful diversity training program is not conducted in isolation but should be supported by a company's hiring and promotion policies as well as by company officials' endorsement, experts say.
A properly run program has many benefits, including increased profitability, and few, if any, drawbacks, they say.
The precise approach to conducting diversity training can vary widely, depending on the particular program.
“There isn't necessarily a typical training program,” said Shirley Davis Sheppard, vice president for global diversity and inclusion and workplace flexibility at the Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Human Resource Management.
“It's so different from organization to organization,” she said. “There are different needs, difference experiences. There are some companies that are further along with diversity, and there are others that are just getting started.”
Christina A. Stoneburner, a partner with law firm Fox Rothschild L.L.P. in Roseland, N.J., said the particular form diversity training can take can include in-person training, video conferencing and webinars.
Diversity training today goes beyond an understanding that you cannot pick on people and “tries to take it one step further and get employees to be conscious of the benefits of a diverse workforce, and address some of the challenges that people from diverse backgrounds have faced,” she said. “Some of it's being sensitive to cultural and ethnic differences.”
“At the very basic level, a typical diversity training program tries to teach two things,” said Lisa Gardner of Silver Spring, Md.-based Lisa Gardner Consulting. “One is a general awareness at the individual level, (including) self-awareness around diversity and personal biases, to make sure associates and employees understand that we all do have biases, and to examine our own biases.”
At the next level, a program should “talk about the value of diversity to the organization” and the “business case for diversity. How does it impact employee engagement, how does it impact customer satisfaction and relevance? How are we connecting with our customers in a culturally appropriate way? It helps people understand” why diversity is not just a nice thing to have, but “really an important business strategy as well,” Ms. Gardner said.
Diversity training should make sure “people have a clear understanding of the business case” for inclusion, which is “pretty obvious given the changes in demographics,” said Howard Ross, founder and chief learning officer at Silver Spring, Md.-based consulting firm Cook Ross Inc.
Another piece of a program should be “an understanding of the importance of culture and how it plays out in the business environment, and particularly in our global business environment today,” he said.
Furthermore, a diversity training program should cover the steps people can take to be proactive on this issue rather than just raising awareness, Mr. Ross said.
“Probably the overriding point that we try to convey is the idea of respect” and “an understanding of how the other person wants to be treated,” said Bruce Greenfield, a principal, consultant and trainer with Columbus, Ohio-based Diversity Matters. “We focus on that a lot, and we talk about stereotypes and where they come from and what to do about them.”
Ms. Gardner said one of the immediate benefits of a diversity program is that it helps to set the company's culture and expectations about employees' behavior with one another and with the customer.
“It helps to develop a culture of transparency and increase people's comfort with building relationships and more effective teamwork, more effective communication, more effective leadership,” she said.
“It can help the company's reputation because employees can then communicate the company's mission and values” which “can create goodwill in the community,” she said. That “can increase market share. It can have a real impact on the bottom line,” Ms. Gardner said.
The benefits of a successful diversity program include the improved worker productivity that can result from a reduction in conflict, said Ms. Stoneburner. “From a business standpoint, there's a benefit to having a happy, productive employee.”
And from a legal standpoint, it helps to avoid liability, she said. When “people embrace the message of diversity training, you will have fewer harassment complaints,” she said.
Furthermore, the more training you provide your employees, the more affirmative defenses you have in litigation if there is a complaint, Ms. Stoneburner said. It can further solidify the idea of “how seriously the employer takes the issue of diversity.”
Mr. Ross said diversity training should be conducted within a “broader training context” rather than “just throwing a training program at something.” It is not enough, for example, to hold a meeting in the company cafeteria during Black History Month, he said.
Rather, a program “should be part of a systematic approach within your organization,” which is reflected in its hiring, promotion and benefits package, Mr. Ross said.
“You look comprehensively at all the various decisions that are made in the organization to get a sense” of whether you are doing things the best way.