The events of the past year, from the murder of George Floyd to the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Black and brown communities, have left many wondering how they can fight systemic racism and inequity in their own communities and workplaces. Companies have responded with official statements, pledges, and, in some cases, mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) trainings.
Although often well-intentioned, this compulsory training can actually be counterproductive: It fails to increase diversity in management, sends the wrong message about the company’s culture, and sometimes, even increases biases or hostility.
Creating a safe, inclusive work environment that is free of harassment and microaggressions is critical to maintaining a strong business and retaining employees of color. Voluntary DEI training, rather than mandatory programming, can be a more effective tool in helping employees improve their understanding and skills, no matter their starting point.
Voluntary diversity training can take many forms. In our experience, focusing the content of voluntary trainings on history, facts, and tangible actions is the most productive form. Trainings should include education on the causes and effects of systemic racism and other types of discrimination, how to identify and mitigate them in the workplace, and how intentionally inclusive employment practices and workplace behaviors can help to reverse them.
Why it works
Research shows that voluntary DEI training improves racial and ethnic representation within companies, leading to 9% to 13% increases in Black men, Hispanic men, and Asian American men and women in management after five years.
This is in contrast to mandatory training, which has been proven to backfire. Compulsory programs can have harmful effects on the retention and advancement of underrepresented groups: Five years after instituting required training, companies found there was no improvement in the proportion of white women, Black men, or Hispanic people in management. Furthermore, the share of Black women managers plummeted by 9%.
The adoption curve
Of course, every company administers federally mandated compliance training. If that is the extent of DEI education at a company, it sends a loud and clear message to employees: We only do this because we have to. And that dangerous mindset can rapidly permeate the workforce.
But executives have a clear opportunity to increase investment in voluntary, inviting, and action-oriented DEI training. Doing so quickly shifts the organization’s stance: We care about creating an inclusive culture, and we encourage all employees to take ownership of that.
How VMWare took action
In 2020, VMware invested in foundational DEI education opportunities for all employees. Course topics include inclusive leadership development, inclusive language training, and unconscious bias training. And employees are choosing to engage: Last year, more than 10,000 employees completed the unconscious bias training.
Combined with other inclusion- and equity-based efforts, trainings have helped VMware embed a commitment to an inclusive organization in its culture. VMware COO Sanjay Poonen says that the company is “committed to having 50% of our managers be women” and that it wants to “hire one woman for every one male … and really see a more diverse workforce with underrepresented minorities and women.” And the company recently reported that 82.4% of US interview slates included at least one woman or underrepresented minority, advancing its diversity hiring goals.