by Rachel Mansell, Vice-President, Operations, Mosaic Institute I recently attended a 40th birthday celebration with a mix of teachers and corporate professionals. The conversation turned to various mandatory Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) trainings they all received over the past week. Excited, as EDI is my area of expertise, I prepared to join the conversation to hear what they learned and how it can really help people. Before I could pipe up, however, I was surprised and disheartened to hear my group of friends agree that their time could have been better used.
I was confused – I have seen each of these friends stand up for equity and dignity at their work and know they share values of EDI: creating spaces where everyone’s needs are met and where they can belong. I listened closely to the conversation, and heard their personal experiences of feeling confused and frustrated by trainings that told them what was wrong and what should be happening, but not actually how to do it, or why it was needed.
About EDI Training
Mandatory diversity and inclusion training has become en vogue in the past five years. Pieces of this work have been happening for a long time under different names such as intercultural competency, multiculturalism, needs-based assessments, community-grounded approaches. At its core, this work is about the quantifiable representation of various groups in a space (diversity) and how these various groups are treated in that space (inclusion). These days, we are more likely to see acronyms such as EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion), IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility), EDID (equity, diversity, inclusion, decolonization), and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Building on the foundation of the previous work, these approaches include an aspect of equity and decolonization – recognition that systems are flawed and that we all play a part in creating better ones. They are a response to increasing awareness of systemic injustice and calls for those in power to do better. “In power” often refers to those who create the systems – whether it be the education sector, government, corporate or other. It can also refer to groups who hold power over others, whether due to identity or role.
In Canada, it is now expected that companies, groups, and institutions be actively increasing EDI efforts; whether that is hiring for a permanent role or bringing in consultants. For many, this surge in EDI effort is a huge success: those in power are finally paying attention to the changes that need to be made. At the same time, the methods and approaches are under increasing scrutiny – because they seem to be having the opposite effect in some ways. EDI trainings can leave participants feeling more divided than empowered (1). What causes the difference in response?
Core vs Periphery
In human rights legal theory, there is a concept called the core and the periphery. Based on the universality of human rights, it identifies that people across cultures and identities often agree on the core of a right – to life, shelter, and sustenance – but disagree on the periphery of the right – how these rights are protected.
In a legal sense, this concept identifies that the core of a right will be protected more than the periphery of a right. For example, the courts have said that requiring religious officials to perform same-sex marriages contrary to their religious belief is different than allowing a person operating a business to refuse to offer services to a same-sex organization on the basis that it violates their religious beliefs. In the latter case, the court noted that business is at the “periphery” of freedom of religion, and therefore, the religious rights had to give way to the right to be free from discrimination in services based on sexual orientation.
Following the core and the periphery theory, most people agree that we need the world to be better. Most people also tend to agree that there are groups who have been unfairly treated. Where people disagree – and where EDI work so often misses the mark – is what needs to be done in response. The “next steps” are often missing from many of these workshops, leaving participants feeling frustrated and facilitators feeling burnt out. People agree about the “core,”, but disagree strongly about the “periphery.” These three steps can help align the core and the periphery:
Providing context for mandatory EDI training is necessary. Without it, trainings can potentially cause more harm than help.
Facilitators should be equipped with some knowledge of the group/workspace dynamics.
People are aware there is injustice. They want to know what they can do about it.
1. Providing context for mandatory EDI training is necessary.
We know that mandatory training is rarely effective. Mandatory participation and legal curriculum make participants feel that an external power is trying to control their behaviour, regardless of the topic . It creates a sense of distrust between the leadership and the employees, and fosters a sense of resentment. Embedding EDI training within a larger push for organizational change can help alleviate the pains of mandatory training. Specifically, taking the time to meaningfully communicate with team members and explaining the reasons for EDI training can go a long way to ensuring that the training is effective. Key questions to consider are:
Why is this training mandatory?
What changes should the training accomplish?
What efforts are already underway to increase EDI, and how will this training complement them?
2. Facilitators should be equipped with some knowledge of the group/workspace dynamics. There is an onus on both the client and the facilitator to ensure all parties are prepared for the training. Participants should understand why they are required to participate in this session, and the facilitator should have some understanding of the organization’s EDI journey. Ideally, they will also have some information about the participants to help guide the session. These best practices rely on data and insights that not all organizations have. In their absence, a brief chat between the organization and the facilitator to share general reflections can go a long way. Key questions to consider are:
Are there any topic(s) that may be sensitive for the group?
What is the general EDI knowledge level of the group?
Where is the organization in its EDI journey?
What communications have been shared about the session?
3. People are aware there is injustice. They want to know what they can do about it. The purpose of EDI training in the workplace is to improve that particular workplace. It cannot fix the myriad systemic injustices in this world on its own, nor can it be expected to. What it can do is equip people with the knowledge and skills they need to make individual and systemic changes in their spheres of influence.
It can help train team leads to create more equitable processes. It can expose people to different lived experiences, building understanding. It can help identify the boundaries of inclusive and exclusive behaviour.
Focusing EDI sessions on both knowledge and skills-building can help participants feel empowered to move forward with their new knowledge. Done right, EDI trainings are mentally and emotionally taxing, and challenging in the best way to move the dial on these important issues. Ensuring clear next steps grounded in the organization’s needs connects the individual to the systemic, and makes the impossible seem achievable.
What is the future for EDI training? I believe there is a bright one – when done right. Like any other skill set, it needs to be learned, practiced, and honed. The recommendations in this blog are drawn from general facilitation and leadership best practices, and applied to the complex subjects of EDI.
To assess whether an EDI session was effective, consider these questions: Was a Brave Space curated to foster critical conversations?
Brave Spaces encourage uncomfortable conversation and moves participants outside their comfort zone while fostering a nurturing learning environment. It encourages people to ask questions, but also hold them accountable for their words and actions.
Were there tangible next steps or suggested implementation options?
Ideally, items specific to the group will emerge during a session, such as policy changes, communication adjustments, or strategic planning. For more high-level or general sessions, reading lists, case studies, or sector-specific recommendations can help participants leave feeling empowered.
Was accountability established?
Balancing accountability with learning and empowerment is a challenging aspect of any change management process – EDI training is no different. Action plans that include measurement of those action plans and deliverables can alleviate feelings of resentment and help participants feel equipped to make the necessary adjustments. Whenever possible, accountability and actions plans should be sector-specific.
Most important is the role individuals play in the process. How people show up as part of the process - participating in helpful or harmful ways, is an enormous factor in its success. If we seek to help while ensuring the dignity of people involved at every step in the process, EDI training can contribute to radical positive change into the future.
The purpose of EDI is to increase equity, diversity, and inclusion in a specific environment. Dismantling prejudicial systems is a complex process, but one we all have a role in playing. We just need to ensure everyone knows what their role is and why.
If you have more questions about EDI training, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Citations and Resources
Are Workplace Diversity Programs Doing More Harm Than Good? | The New York Times (2021)
Diversity Training Doesn't Work | HBR (2012)
Diversity Training' Doesn't Work. This Might. | Heterodox Academy (2020)
Does Diversity Training Work the Way It's Supposed To? | HBR (2019)
Mosaic Institute Brave Spaces Toolkit
Rethinking EDI Training Amid Today's Changing Social Consciousness | Ivey Business Journal (2021)
The complicated battle over unconscious-bias training | BBC Worklife (2021)
Three Steps To Overcoming Bias: Why Diversity Training Doesn't Always Work | Forbes Coaches Council (2021)
Two Types of Diversity Training That Really Work (2017)
Why Doesn't Diversity Training Work? | Anthropology Now (2018)
Why ineffective diversity training won't go away | BBC Worklife (2021)