Education: The Key to Diversity and Inclusion Training

Published: Dec 11, 2020
Modified: Apr 09, 2024



So why haven’t we been able to make more progress toward an inclusive society where everyone has the same opportunity to succeed? What has been holding us back?

There’s a long list of things I could point to, but one of the biggest gaps I see (and one of those infamous “quick wins”) is education. It’s not just that there is a woeful lack of educating going on. How the education is being executed—and in fact how the education is perceived— is the real problem.


First on the list of issues is that the approach to education on diversity and inclusion (D&I) is traditionally “one and done.” We put everyone through a voluntary program and we’re good, right? This is what I like to refer to as “wrong.”

The first mistake is that your employee population isn’t static. The average employee turnover rate is about 18%, but that can be a lot higher in some industries (such as food service or retail). By the time you’ve trained everyone, you need to start back at the beginning to capture the new people. And that cycle continues endlessly.

Education should be part of onboarding. From the day a person starts, there should be mandatory D&I education driven by a D&I learning map that takes each person through a learning journey. Use a blended learning approach— eLearning to establish a foundation (because it’s cheap, sustainable, and can be done at a person’s own pace) followed by instructor-led training to build from there.

The second mistake in the “one and done” approach is the idea that one program covers it all. If #BlackLivesMatter has shown us anything, it’s that we have a lot of work to do to educate people on anti- Black and systemic racism. And that’s just one topic. The conversation around D&I is constantly evolving, and so should your education program.

Start with good old-fashioned diversity and inclusion fundamentals (what diversity and inclusion mean and why they are important in your organization) and build from there to more complex topics such as unconscious bias and intercultural competence. From there, you can (must) go on to antiracism education (and this should be a series, not a single course), LGBTQ2 inclusion, and so on. There are a lot of identities under the pan-diversity umbrella, and they all have different considerations. Think of it like putting all your employees through a certificate program in D&I and keep layering things on as you go.

You might also want to develop some form of assessment tool to customize the learning map for each person. Everyone joining your organization will have a different level of experience with diversity and inclusion. Don’t force people to go through the D&I fundamentals when they’ve already had years of D&I training. An assessment tool ensures that each person gets relevant learning for them. And before you Google it, such a tool does not currently exist. Yet.(My organization is working on it.)


This one is so wrong it gets its own heading: voluntary. Many times, I have delivered training when it’s voluntary and I find myself in a room full of smiling faces nodding at every word I say. While I love my fans, the problem is you don’t need to preach to the choir. You need to be preaching to the back row.

The problem with “voluntary” is that you’re only speaking to one side of the fence. I present a model in my book, Birds of All Feathers: Doing Diversity and Inclusion Right called the Five Fs.

You can likely figure out what each of them means. When delivering “voluntary” training, you end up with an audience that is made up of “family,” “friends,” and the occasional “fence-sitter.” The problem is that what you really need is an audience of “fence-sitters,” “foes,” and “fighters.” They’re the ones you really need to educate.

Education programs on D&I should not be “voluntary” or “strongly encouraged.” Make them mandatory for all. If you really want to affect change in your organization, you have to make sure you take everyone along on the journey.


Sadly, it’s not always easy to find the people in your organization who are racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/anti-whatever.

That being the case, you must educate everyone. Every single employee, from the top of the house to the bottom, needs to go through the same education program. There’s no way to tell who needs the education and who doesn’t, so you must make everyone go through it.

It’s also important to note that I’m not delusional (enough) to believe that forcing people into D&I training is going to fix their racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/anti-whatever behavior, but I like to think of D&I education as a marathon, not a sprint. Again, it’s not a one and done. You have to take learners on a journey of discovery, not just about other people, but about themselves. That takes time.


When leaders hear “education,” they usually think, “I’m going to have to pay people to take time off work to attend this.”Yes and no. Although a half day with me is super-fun, it’s not necessarily practical to put all your people through that form of training.

You can keep your education short and concise. As I already suggested, blended learning is a great way to educate people. Start with a series of short eLearning courses that can have a similar (but not the same) outcome as instructor- led training. It’s also far more cost-effective and sustainable and is easier to roll out to your entire organization.

From there, you can introduce short instructor-led training sessions (which can easily be done virtually) for some or all of your employees and build on their knowledge. The advantage to instructor-led training is that it allows for a much higher level of interactivity and discussion, which engages people’s brains in a different way. eLearning is great for covering the fundamentals of a topic—think of it like an information push—but it doesn’t allow for that engaged conversation where the real learning happens.

That said, yes you should be paying your people to learn something that you want them to learn. Do you pay them to take safety and/or compliance training? Then you should pay them to take D&I training.


Structured learning is one thing, but unstructured learning is equally valuable. There are so many ways that we learn: reading a book, watching a television show or movie, listening to a podcast, or having a conversation. They’re all ways to expand your understanding of other people’s experiences.

For example, if you’re looking to learn how to be an antiracist, why not read How to Be an Antiracist (One World, 2019) by Ibram X. Kendi. Or, if you’re not quite ready for that, how about White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Beacon Press, 2018) by Robin DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson. Both are fantastic reads and really informative. And that’s what learning can be.

From a workplace perspective, at the beginning of every team meeting, you could have a “diversity moment” when someone shares something about themselves to help educate their co-workers on the diversity that exists around them. Or how about a workplace book club where you read, let’s say, Birds of All Feathers: Doing Diversity and Inclusion Right, and have a team discussion.


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Tone from the top is critical. If your leaders don’t understand the value of diversity and inclusion, you won’t get anywhere. You need them not only to buy in but also to take ownership of the journey.

More often than not, a leader’s perceptions of the organization are not in line with the employees’ lived experiences. Leaders tend to not be fully aware of what’s going on, particularly if they aren’t members of an underrepresented group. I’ve seen situations in which leaders think the organization is perfect—there’s no sexism, racism, homophobia, and so on. And then the employees’ feedback reveals a dramatically different reality. The bigger the organization, the less likely its leaders will be attuned to the day-to-day, lived experience of its people.

Leaders need as much education as anyone else. Their learning programs should cover all the same information you push out to the rest of the organization, but they should also focus on a leader’s role in creating an inclusive workplace. Their learning should be delivered in a safe space where they can be vulnerable and not feel like their staff will look at them differently. Or, as I like to say it, a place where they can safely stick their foot in their mouth.

We don’t know what we don’t know. If you’ve never been Black, you may have little understanding of what that lived experience is like. And that’s OK. As a white man, I will never experience anti-Black racism. But I can learn and empathize.

Where we are today isn’t any one person’s problem, and it certainly isn’t going to be fixed by a single person either. The only way we’re going to address the problems we’re facing is for everyone to have a better understanding of those issues, and to figure out their role in creating inclusive workplaces. And the only way we’ll get there is through education.

About the Author: Michael Bach is CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, and the author of Birds of All Feathers: Doing Diversity and Inclusion Right.