Early in my career, the company I worked for mandated that each employee complete a DEI training, which consisted of a short video full of smiling, diverse faces, followed by some questions in the company’s virtual learning platform. This was a 20-minute time commitment, and the full extent of the DEI program. 

The culture of the company reflected this level of commitment — while they hired for diversity, they promoted for homogeny; only cisgendered white men and occasionally white women were promoted to positions of leadership.  Like many others, the company was content to preach a message of diversity, equity and inclusion, but rarely put it into practice. 

Fast forward to 2020 and that approach was confronted en masse for the first time, with a collective realization that DEI work is desperately needed. In the wake, the business world has grasped at any straw it can find to call “DEI” and in my experience, this often is approached in one of two ways. Both cause real harm to the mission of DEI work and to the health of an organization.

The first approach is a “check-the-box” mentality. This is what I experienced at the company early in my career and countless others have experienced elsewhere. Whether it’s related to DEI or some other training initiative, leadership mandates (or “eagerly encourages”) compliance to a training. This training is often off-the-shelf and focused on speed and completion over quality. Too often, DEI is viewed as a problem (akin to workplace safety, sexual harassment or IT security) and organizations go in with the mindset that they need to make sure they have a DEI program to ensure compliance and minimize risk. There is nothing aspirational here.

The outcome from this approach does more harm than good. A company deploys this training along with a whole host of intentional, visual efforts to support DEI initiatives. What’s missing is meaningful action. Managers are not coached on how to lead diverse teams, pay rates are not adjusted to ensure equity and succession planning/promotions are not re-evaluated. DEI is a true systems issue in which the system is never fully addressed. Employees will take note—either by continuing with “business as usual” or beginning to look elsewhere, seeking a company that says what it means and means what it says.

The second approach is to convert the converted. Here, no effort is made to truly bring the learners on a journey or to address the varying perspectives and past experiences of individuals on that journey. Through overt and covert messages, the learner is told that whatever concept is being taught is the truth, that they should enthusiastically embrace these truths and that ideas can be explored, but not questioned. 

The problem here is that the best way to sway our beliefs and change our actions is not by being told – questioning and challenging are key to the learning process, especially with concepts like these.

The converted who teach these “concrete truths” are akin to old-time preachers – seeking to save people while brooking little dissent. Their moral righteousness and passion betray what should be the real goal: changing hearts and minds.

Common among these two approaches is the tendency for a heavy focus on respecting diversity. The message is that it is important to know, value and appreciate the differences among us—an honorable goal for certain. However, the more important ideas of inclusion and truly providing underrepresented groups a sense of belonging end up getting short shrift.

So, what is the path forward? We need to begin with the end in mind. The truth about all humans is that we have an innate need to belong. We seek affiliation with others and try to build community from those associations. All DEI initiatives should start with an investment in teaching employees what a culture of belonging looks like, sounds like and feels like. 

In my experience, everyone KNOWS a toxic workplace. What we don’t realize is that sometimes our workplace is toxic for someone else when it doesn’t feel that way for us — or that change can come from simple actions to make things better for ourselves and our colleagues. This doesn’t mean that everyone at work should or will be best friends—but your company has hired everyone for a reason and presumably, you’re all there because you believe in some aspect of the work. It’s bad business to lose a team member because your employees don’t understand what it means to maintain an emotionally safe work environment, and it costs a lot of money to recruit, interview, hire, onboard and train someone new to do a job. By ignoring these issues or going silent when they’re brought up, companies send a LOUD message that they are happy with the status quo —and further amplify any sense of not belonging that an employee feels.

When JMReid Group designs our DEI trainings, we start with a recognition that we have all seen, experienced or heard about toxic or unwelcoming work environments. We then define what belonging means in the workplace and discuss the many ways people are shown that they don’t belong. We’re proponents of intergroup contact theory—so we make a concerted effort to design our programs with small group discussions among diverse groups, which allows people to not only hear the perspective of others but to embrace the reality of bias’s impact in the world. We end each session with conversation tools that equip our learners to start making immediate change and to build a culture of belonging within their own teams.

The results have been remarkable. Starting off at this level allows everyone to open up to the potential pitfalls of the modern workplace. We then use that footing to expand into the drivers of exclusion and its effects—from implicit bias to destructive power dynamics. There is also tremendous importance in letting people talk about the issues – allowing your employees freedom of expression to socialize these concepts for themselves goes a long way towards building their investment and engagement. 

Most important in our approach is that by targeting belonging for all employees, we open the conversation at the most human and relatable level. By deploying thoughtful questions, small group discussions and activities designed to build connection, we help your team members see each other as individuals. This connection can then build into a greater cohesiveness—through a thoughtful learning path designed with our amazing DEI partners—to improve the conditions for all your employees, eventually leading to an engaged, productive and committed workforce driving your organization.