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Organizations are increasingly recognizing that diversity, inclusion, and anti-oppression lead to belonging for individuals and equity for all.1 Learning is a key workforce enabler of a broader Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategy and helps to build an inclusive culture and workforce committed to increasing diversity and promoting equity across the organization. Organizations can take an active role in embedding DEI learning into the heart of business operations and culture by making three important shifts: From unconscious bias training to a DEI learning strategy, from DEI awareness to DEI fluency, and from individual compliance to personal action and systemic change.
Shift 1: From Unconscious Bias Training to a DEI Learning Strategy
DEI learning for most organizations began as unconscious bias training, a foundational concept for understanding discrimination and inequity. But unconscious bias training alone, which is often generic and not customized to an organization’s context, does not effectively equip leaders or the workforce to transform the barriers to DEI that can be embedded in an organization’s culture and operations.2 In fact, there is evidence that when unconscious bias training programs are used as a stand-in for a holistic DEI learning strategy, it may lead to accusations of performative allyship or an internal backlash to the organization’s DEI efforts.3,4 Unconscious bias training alone also does not fully address the harm of discriminatory practices for workers, which include negative physical and emotional impacts and inequity at every step of the talent lifecycle.5 A holistic DEI learning strategy, which includes unconscious bias training, enables leaders at all levels to advance the organization’s DEI agenda in a meaningful, sustainable way.
A holistic DEI learning strategy is about more than reacting to today’s environment – it is about developing the conditions for long-term behavior changes. This strategy in action could look like defining learner segments (personas), determining where learners are in their DEI learning journey, and identifying gaps in that journey to design learning solutions that address specific learner needs and drive behavior changes. Behavior changes are best enabled by developing enduring human capabilities across the workforce. Examples of enduring human capabilities that enable rapid and ongoing skill acquisition include Deloitte’s Six Signature Traits of Inclusive Leadership: Cognizance, Curiosity, Collaboration, Cultural Intelligence, Courage, and Commitment. Skills, on the other hand, are more targeted tactical knowledge or expertise needed to achieve work outcomes within a specific context and can be limited in scope and time.6,7 A holistic DEI learning strategy targets enduring human capabilities through learning plans for defined learner personas and leverages various learning modalities, or approaches, including virtual learning, digital platforms, small-group discussions/learning plans, virtual “nudges,” and coaching. By developing a DEI learning strategy centered on cultivating enduring human capabilities via various modalities, organizations can drive sustainable change within the organization in pursuit of belonging and equity.
Shift 2: From DEI Awareness to Fit-for-Purpose DEI Fluency
Some organizations default to training their leaders and workforce on DEI through a passive, awareness-only approach that is agnostic to organizational needs (e.g., reading lists with books and articles to quickly “get smart” on DEI).8 An awareness-only approach to DEI learning is not effective at disrupting existing systems of oppression (some examples of these systems may be talent practices that maintain homogeneity among leadership). In fact, this approach reinforces those existing systems of oppression by not contextualizing or actively preventing the harm faced by historically marginalized people, often Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). For organizations to truly challenge and transform their inequitable structures and practices, they must equip their workforce through a fit-for-purpose DEI learning approach that is aligned to the organization’s business strategy, culture, and broader DEI strategic priorities.
A DEI fluency learning approach equips learners to apply DEI concepts (e.g., conscious inclusion) and vocabulary (e.g., “anti-oppression”) to change the way they think, make decisions, and ultimately to effect change. An example of a DEI fluency learning approach is a team at a healthcare company that initially learns about the concept of intersectionality through a digital DEI learning module. Through an immersive virtual experience grounded in real, relevant scenarios, the team then explores how the intersecting identities of a specific customer segment will influence the team’s considerations as they redesign the customer experience. In this case, putting DEI knowledge into action leads directly to improved products and services for the customer, drives market creation, and improves business results.
Shift 3: From Individual Compliance to Personal Action and Systemic Change
In order to transform DEI learning into equitable action, the connection must be drawn between the learner’s personal experiences and collective corporate experiences with inequitable policies, systems, and infrastructure – centering the voices of historically marginalized communities. Enabling learners to think at a systems level pushes leaders to articulate and commit to the company's DEI vision, and empowers individual workers to work together to create meaningful change towards that vision.
An example would be leaders at a technology company coming to terms with the low level of Black representation in their workforce and leadership. In this case, it is helpful to give learners the opportunity to reflect on how their personal unconscious biases and the organization’s culture and practices drive these inequitable outcomes. They could also consider the policies at a societal level that maintain systemic racism in education and talent pipelines in STEM, and how this contributes to inequity and lack of representation within their organization. It can be illuminating for many learners to explore the historical inequities (e.g., redlining) in their societies and the many ways in which those inequities persist today (e.g., inequitable public school funding). Re-learning their historical narratives from the perspective of those who have been systemically and historically disadvantaged allows learners to make more informed decisions in their organization’s context and drive organizational and cultural change for the better.
Activating DEI Learning
To build lasting DEI change in an organization through comprehensive learning, it is imperative to make sustained investments of time and resources. Regardless of whether your organization is early in its DEI learning journey or at an inflection point, consider some of the actions below.
1. Conduct a needs assessment to evaluate what you currently offer the workforce for DEI. This can include:
a) Cataloging, reviewing, and rationalizing existing DEI learning and evaluation data;
b) Understanding current DEI strengths and skill gaps and compiling preliminary recommendations for tailored learning program objectives.
2. Develop a holistic DEI learning strategy that aligns and activates your DEI, people, and business strategies. This can include:
a) Conducting a stakeholder workshop to align on the desired future state of DEI learning;
b) Developing learner personas and sample learner experience maps to define the desired learning experience for each learner segment (Operators, Team Members, Field, Staff);
c) Determining learning delivery modalities (e.g. web-based labs, e-learning modules, and virtual train-the-trainer toolkits).
3. Stand up a DEI learning ecosystem to provide learners with multiple points of entry and forums to digitally collaborate on their learning journeys. This can include:
a) Creating a DEI learning curriculum, including learning assets and visual framework, to execute on the DEI learning strategy (e.g., learning journey for each learning persona);
b) Establishing learning governance and stakeholder alignment processes;
c) Identifying optimal type and sequence of implementation, considering resources
Every organization is in a different place in its DEI journey. Though the starting point may vary, the shifts described above can act as accelerators to foster diversity, inclusion, and anti-oppression, and advance belonging for the individual and equity for all.
1Deloitte Consulting LLP, The racial equity imperative: The need for business to take bold action now, February 2021.
2Tiffany L. Green, Nao Hagiwara, “The Problem with Implicit Bias Training,” Scientific American, August 28, 2020.
4Frank Dobbin, Alexandra Kalev, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” Harvard Business Review, July 2016.
5Mary-Frances Winters, “Equity and Inclusion: The Roots of Organizational Well-Being,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, October 14, 2020.
6Juliet Bourke, “The six signature traits of inclusive leadership: Thriving in a diverse new world,” Deloitte Insights, April 14, 2016.
7Jennifer Radin, Steve Hatfield, Jeff Schwartz, Colleen Bordeaux, “Closing the employability skills gap: The answer is simpler than you may think,” January 28, 2020.
8Joelle Emerson, “Don’t Give Up on Unconscious Bias Training – Make It Better,” Harvard Business Review, April 28, 2017.
As a principal in Deloitte Consulting LLP and the national leader of Deloitte’s Client Service practice, Christina Brodzik brings more than 20 years of experience to the human capital space. She has worked across multiple industries to design and build DEI functions, provide coaching and support for new chief DEI officers, and develop multiyear DEI strategies. She is also a certified facilitator for Deloitte’s Inclusive Leadership Experience, Inclusion Strategy, and Chief DEI Officer Transition Labs.
Michael is a principal in Deloitte Consulting LLP with more than 20 years of experience, working with organizations on key transformational programs. Within the Human Capital practice, he leads the Workforce Transformation offering, helping clients with learning transformations, workforce planning, workforce experience, becoming skill based, in addition to other workforce-related issues. He is well published in the field of learning and talent, and is the leading market voice on becoming a skills-based organization. He is an author for Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends research and report, co-leading the report in 2023 – the largest global report, of its kind, in market.