Think Strategy First for a Diverse and Inclusive Workplace

Take a minute and look around your workplace. Does everyone look like you? Do some people dominate conversations and situations at the expense of others? When hiring, do you hear: “We need another Glen or Joanne?”

A ‘yes’ to questions like these signals the presence of unconscious bias, circumventing your best efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. As an HR professional, you know it’s your job to work to eliminate biases in order to avoid the pitfalls that even the biggest organizations – including Starbucks and Amazon – have fallen into. Companies everywhere are scrambling for ways to deal with unconscious bias. And you can’t count on artificial intelligence to save you – it can be just as guilty as the rest of us.

Your first instinct when dealing with unconscious bias may be to set up more training. While training is important, I recommend you take a step back and consider the problem from a broader strategic level to identify multiple behaviour-changing levers that can work in tandem to make your workplace more diverse, more inclusive and less biased.

Before we get into the details, let’s start with clear definitions of unconscious bias and unconscious bias training.

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias refers to learned, deeply ingrained stereotypes, views and opinions that we are unaware of because they happen outside our conscious control. They surface automatically – triggered by our brain as it makes quick judgements about people and situations. Unconscious biases are influenced by factors such as our background, cultural environment, context and personal experiences and they affect our everyday behaviour and decision-making.

What is unconscious bias training?

Unconscious bias training and interventions aim to increase awareness of unconscious bias and its impact on people who belong to traditionally underrepresented groups in terms of characteristics such as age, race, sex, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender, marriage and civil partnership status, and other attributes.

Some of the aims of unconscious bias training are:

  • to reduce implicit/unconscious bias towards members of underrepresented groups as identified above
  • to reduce explicit bias towards members of these groups
  • to change behaviour, in the intended direction, towards equality-related outcomes

For more on unconscious bias training, please see the U.K.-based Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report, Unconscious bias training: An assessment of the evidence for effectiveness (March 2018).

Training, while important, is only a single tactic to raise awareness about unconscious bias and promote positive diversity and inclusion outcomes. The challenge is that most people will say they are unbiased – in fact, individuals who take Harvard’s IAT test are most likely to self-report as egalitarian. However, deeper probing continues to reveal systematic biases:

When individuals are asked about their feelings and attitudes towards others, they are most likely to self-report as egalitarian (orange bar), while deeper testing (blue bar) reveals systemic biases.

Unlike self-awareness and beliefs, behaviour is observable. We can measure it scientifically. We can track changes and make adjustments in our programming to make sure it is making a real difference. If measurable changes in behaviour are your goal (moving beyond what people say or believe to what they do), you require a strategic approach or framework that involves both teams and individuals and is embedded at multiple levels throughout the organization.

A strategic framework for diversity and inclusion looks like this:

A behaviour change approach to a diverse and inclusive workplace. Use the strategic framework of purpose, process, practice and people to minimize unconscious bias and create change in your organization.

Here’s how this strategic framework plays out in terms of real activities with tangible outcomes:


The shared values, beliefs, and purpose that lead people’s behaviour

Yes, it’s important to state that your organization values diversity and inclusion. But we all know that talk is cheap. Efforts that only extend to “core values” statements on your website may be worse than not doing anything at all. It’s essential to walk your talk by integrating your stated values into activities within the other three organizational levels (process, practice and people). Doing so will set you well on your way to creating a culture that honours and supports diversity and inclusion.


Policies and procedures that guide people’s behaviour

Turning policies on diversity and inclusion into concrete workplace procedures that people can easily follow is critical to creating the ‘ways of working’ that you want to engender throughout your workforce. Hiring is a high priority place to start, including recruitment strategies, resume review and interviewing techniques.


Tools that nudge and support your people’s behaviour

It’s entirely possible to change people’s behaviour without expensive, productivity-zapping education and training. One way is by augmenting people’s environments – whether physical, cognitive, or social – with tools or “behavioural nudges.”

From a simple checklist all the way to a fully integrated performance support like Turbotax (accounting software that takes individuals through a step-by-step process of answering simple questions to file their tax returns), these tools effectively take the thinking out of an activity, and influence the way people perform the activity through subtle, often unconscious cues. (This point is critical, since it is people’s thinking that is precisely the problem when it comes to diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias.)

For example, framing interview questions in certain ways on your standard interview script can disavow interviewers of particular biases that may differentially support certain candidates. The interview script is an example of a tool that deploys nudges by framing questions to drive egalitarian questioning and responses.

Note that it’s not necessary to change the thinking of interviewers; we need only have them follow a particular script that is nuanced in the right sorts of ways.

For many organizations, these “behavioural nudges” are an untapped method of creating behaviour change. They are easy to implement and tremendously cost-effective.


Learning experiences that change people’s behaviour

Of course, we can also change observable behaviour by developing each individual’s personal knowledge and skills. To do it right, however, you need to design training in a way that goes beyond changing their minds to improve behaviour-based skills.

I’m a big fan of in-person training that uses scenarios and simulations to facilitate practicing skills and applying knowledge.

I like to flip the traditional way of teaching and begin by challenging people to solve an applied problem, while providing them with coaching and feedback along the way. Any information they need – any knowledge – can be provided as optional resources they can use to solve the problem.

Another avenue to consider is e-learning, which provides a scalable solution to unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion training if you have a large employee base and are looking for cost efficiencies. The research shows that for unconscious bias training, e-learning can provide the same outcomes as in-person training. (For more on this point, see section 3.2 in the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report, Unconscious bias training: An assessment of the evidence for effectiveness).

A blend of in-person training for leaders and e-learning for employees is a good mix if you have a big company. The leaders get the hands-on experience: they wrestle with the ideas and can help shape the implementation in the organization, while employees get a scalable e-learning version, with no loss in learning outcomes.

A strategy integrated across these four organizational elements – purpose, process, practice and people – is your best path to real, measurable behaviour change and a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

— Aaron Barth

Aaron Barth, Ph.D., is president and founder of Dialectic. He is a frequent speaker on topics such as unconscious bias in the workplace, and the power of science, design thinking, and technology to help accelerate employee learning, transform organizations and support employee and customer engagement.


Woman using an e-learning module

How to Make Your e-Learning Resonate

The number of companies focused on implementing a strong e-learning strategy is growing.

And we don’t blame them.

Not only does it increase performance and productivity, but e-learning also saves 20% more in the first year of implementation compared to traditional classroom training.

But a switch to digital learning is not just about employee performance. It’s also business results. E-learning generates 26% more revenue per employee when combined with on-the-job training.

These numbers don’t work with traditional styles of e-learning modules. It’s now about engaging employees and learning how they digest information and translate it to useful skills. It’s about changing the narrative from mundane training days to one that gets your employees excited to learn.

  1. Start with your company’s business goals
    To design e-learning that resonates, start by focusing on your company’s business goals. Whether it’s raising sales, increasing customer satisfaction, or improving your company’s culture, clarify how the business will be improved by developing more e-learning experiences. Then tell your employees about it. Knowing exactly how the time and energy they will invest in e-learning will impact the business as a whole will motivate them to engage with the material more deeply.
  2. Focus on what people need to DO, not on what they need to know
    Next, dig into your design by answering this question: What do people need to do differently to achieve our business goals? This focus on action will help you target changes in behaviour that will produce real results.
    Notice that the question is not, What do people need to know or understand to achieve our business goals? Concentrating on knowledge and information is likely to lead to click-through info-dumps that will bore people to tears and provide zero business benefit. Put that stuff in job-aids and other performance supports instead, and make them available both inside and outside the e-learning environment so your people can dip in and out of them as needed.
  3. Practice, practice, practice
    When it comes time to start building your e-learning experiences, spend the lion’s share of your design time on creating challenging activities that require people to practice new skills in interesting, real-world scenarios that match the demands of their actual work. Make them hard, but fun. And vary the context of the scenario from activity to activity. This will help people abstract to the general principles you’re trying to teach them.
    Hard-but-fun simulations like this have a higher probability of landing with your teams than traditional “info-blast and quiz” e-learning because they are directly applicable to their day-to-day work and life. The adult learning principle at work here relevance: working professionals must see how training immediately applies to their job, and addresses an immediate need of theirs, in order to be motivated to do it. Moreover, this kind of instructional architecture has been shown to improve the extent to which skills from the training environment transfer back to the workplace.
  4. Test your designs
    Finally, test your designs early and often. Work up basic prototypes and get them in front of employees fast. Involving your target audience in the testing process will not only improve your designs – it will create deeper engagement with the final products. That’s because of the Ikea Effect, which is the cognitive bias causes us to place higher value on things that we help create.
    Use your phone to video record your user tests (I actually recommend using two cameras – one for over-the-shoulder, to help find clues to improve the user interface, and one straight-on, to capture users’ emotional reactions) to get data to improve the user experience and your instructional methods. Ask people to think out loud during the test and describe what they are experiencing. Then sift through the results to identify golden nuggets of insight that will transform your e-learning from good to great.

Employees want to learn and to constantly be engaged. 46% of millennials left their last job due to lack of career growth. And 42% of them said they are likely to leave an employer if they are not learning fast enough. These numbers won’t be slowing down anytime soon. Creating e-learning that resonates could be the difference between an employee that takes the training and utilizes it to improve your business, and one that barely engages with it and ends up slowing down your growth.