5 Things We Learned About Creating a Successful Workplace Diversity Program

Executive Summary

Companies today spend millions of dollars on workplace diversity programs and outreach, often with little to show for it. A team at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a large, federally funded research institute, kept this in mind when creating a workplace diversity training program. The program is now a routinely offered, four-part course that covers topics related to power and privilege, gender, and race, and includes a three-hour bystander intervention training. They found it has increased collaboration among participants, helped research labs create more inclusive environments, and made employees more actively engaged in diversity-related issues throughout the organization. After three years of iterating, evaluating, and improving UNEION, they’ve learned five key practices for how to implement a successful workplace diversity program: 1) Focus on intervention, not just bias reduction; 2) Invite non-managers to foster communication across the organization; 3) Keep the focus on workplace issues, not personal ones; 4) Keep the conversation going to stay accountable; and 5) Be flexible, in both content and delivery.

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Companies today spend millions of dollars on workplace diversity programs and outreach, often with little to show for it. Research has found that most workplace diversity programs fail to produce meaningful diversity and inclusion, and some have actually increased bias among individual employees. In STEM fields, both the private and public sectors continue to struggle with recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce. As of 2017, nearly 75% of those in computing and mathematical fields were men and fewer than 15% were black or Hispanic.

We kept this in mind when creating our own workplace diversity program. Three of us (Brinkworth,  Aponte, and Young) work at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a large, federally funded institute that focuses on producing research and supporting scholars in the atmospheric and earth sciences. Like many technical workplaces, UCAR, which has approximately 1400 employees, has struggled to recruit and retain women and people of color. But UCAR very strongly believes that diversity, equity, and inclusion are fundamental to producing our best science.

In 2015, UCAR appointed Brinkworth as the Director for Diversity, Education, and Outreach (DEO), (later called the Chief Diversity Officer), and was tasked with making UCAR more diverse and inclusive. Shortly after that, a small group of employee researchers led by Young asked about the lack of spaces within the organization to discuss diversity-related topics — a critical issue for employee development and retention. Brinkworth worked with these employees to co-create a diversity training program called UNEION, which stands for UCAR|NCAR Equity and Inclusion.

UNEION is now a routinely offered, four-part course that covers topics related to power and privilege, gender, and race, and includes a three-hour bystander intervention training. The goal of the program is twofold: first, to train participants on how to build inclusive teams, facilitate diversity-related conversations within their divisions, and identify other practices that can promote a positive workplace culture; second, the program serves as a community for those interested in fostering equity and offers a venue for action. More than 80 employees have completed UNEION, and 10 have participated as organizers or “lead learners.” We’ve found that UNEION has increased collaboration among participants, helped research labs create more inclusive environments, and made employees more actively engaged in diversity-related issues throughout the organization.

While we still meet resistance from employees who do not understand how diversity and inclusion are related to their job in a scientific organization, this resistance is becoming less common as we continue to engage in change management and make the case for inclusivity across UCAR. After three years of iterating, evaluating, and improving UNEION, we’ve learned five key practices for how to implement a successful workplace diversity program:

  1. Focus on intervention, not just bias reduction

Many workplace diversity programs have focused only on bias reduction.  Studies have shown that when employers require bias reduction training, hostilities can actually increase.  In voluntary programs such as UNEION, research suggests that those who elect to participate already see themselves as “pro-diversity.” That’s why we move beyond attempting to reduce bias and toward putting inclusion into action.

We learned that the majority of UNEION participants were already aware of societal biases and workplace barriers that women, people of color, and other marginalized groups face. Because research suggests having high levels of awareness before training can lead to more engagement in diversity-related programs, UNEION focuses on 1) equipping participants to intervene when they see bias or harassment unfolding, and 2) training people on how to talk to others about organizational diversity.

UNEION leaders dedicate one session to in-depth bystander intervention training, so people know how to step in when they observe instances of bias and discrimination. The training begins with a demonstration of different intervention techniques, with lead learners role-playing a scenario (based on real instances that had been reported at UCAR), asking the participants for interventions, then acting those suggestions out. For example, in one prompt, the group is asked to respond to a situation where a white researcher tells an Asian colleague that they “work well together because… well, you’re white in my book!” Participants then separate into small groups to review the scenarios, devise a strategy to intervene, and act it out in front of others.

Participants consistently report this session as the most impactful, having boosted their confidence to intervene appropriately with peers, supervisors, and upper management. Follow-up surveys have found that 80% of past participants reported they did intervene in inappropriate workplace situations after receiving this training.

While UNEION does include readings and activities designed to challenge participants’ views of workplace inclusion, the goal is to put those ideas into action.  At each session, lead learners introduce community resources for improving diversity and inclusion.  For example, participants not only discussed why systemic racial inequalities and sexism can lead to fewer women and people of color in STEM, but also how to improve UCAR’s student outreach programs and local organizations that could support those efforts.

Alongside these pieces, UCAR has made significant structural efforts to be a more inclusive organization, including undertaking a comprehensive workplace culture study, developing a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategic plan, expanding an outreach and mentoring program for underrepresented students, revamping hiring procedures, and reviewing policies to ensure they are equitable for all. These efforts have significantly shifted the conversation about diversity and inclusion at UCAR. An optional full-day retreat in November 2017 attracted more than 10% of UCAR’s staff and approximately 85% of our senior leadership to discuss future diversity and inclusion efforts and strategic planning.

  1. Invite non-managers to foster communication across the organization

Many workplace diversity trainings tend to target only managers. Because previous research shows there are benefits to recruiting diverse groups in terms of race and gender for trainings, UNEION lead learners also emphasize recruiting from all levels of the organization, including non-technical and clerical staff. Research has also shown that inviting non-managers to diversity and inclusion workshops can help organizations better identify points of conflict and possible resolutions. Approximately one-third of past participants have been research staff, and two-thirds have been administrative employees (many of whom have scientific training but are working in program or education-related roles). Over 40% of UNEION participants are in management roles. And over half of past participants we surveyed said they formed collaborations with people in different research areas or departments from their cohort.

At a recent Diversity Action Summit at UCAR, over 140 employees convened to collectively identify UCAR’s unique challenges and opportunities for diversity and inclusion, as well as develop responsive strategies and short-term action steps to create a more inclusive environment in each laboratory and workgroup. We followed up on these plans with customized workshops for each lab, program, and department to help them identify priority areas in order to see positive cultural change.

  1. Keep the focus on workplace issues, not personal ones

Personal issues and career paths are inevitably intertwined.  The lack of diversity and inclusion in workplaces can also be due to personal decisions or other non-workplace factors. For example, research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows that more women than men have to pause their careers to take care of children or aging parents.  People of color and LGBT individuals also face additional challenges, both in and out of the workplace, to advancing their technical careers.

So initially, UNEION embraced the overlap between work and home and included readings and discussions related to topics such as childhood socialization and parenting. However, feedback from those sessions indicated that participants wanted the focus to be on workplace issues and inclusion at all levels of the organization. We also saw research suggesting that diversity training be solely focused on business issues.

The session was reworked to acknowledge external challenges that can impact work performance, advancement, and career choice, while keeping the conversation away from the explicitly personal, such as parenting choices. This kept the issues grounded in the context of work, an important feature of successful diversity programs, while maintaining a forum for people to discuss the ways in which personal identity can affect one’s experience in the organization.

  1. Keep the conversation going to stay accountable

Research shows that the most successful workplace diversity programs are those with higher levels of continued engagement and accountability, such as task forces, diversity managers, and mentoring programs. So, during and after the course, lead learners began holding one-on-one meetings, workshops, and town halls, and encouraging participation in diversity-related outreach programs. Lead learners also promote a cohort mentality among participants by encouraging collaboration and informal information sharing.

Many past participants have ongoing relationships with UNEION leaders and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at UCAR. Nearly 90% of those surveyed who completed UNEION have incorporated diversity and inclusion into their team building activities, outreach efforts, and recruitment and retention plans. And we’ve found that many people get introduced to UNEION and other diversity-related programs at UCAR through UNEION alumni.

  1. Be flexible, in both content and delivery

There is no one-size fits all curriculum for workplace diversity programs. Each organization and even each group of participants will have different needs, so facilitators should be flexible in their content, delivery, and structure.

UNEION is now designed so only the introduction has set content. The remaining sessions are developed by the lead learners based on pre-workshop surveys that provide information about the interests, challenges, and biases of participants. This means readings and activities vary greatly by cohort based on the needs of the group. For example, in one cohort, many people raised questions about so-called “reverse racism” in the pre-course survey, a concept not previously addressed in the course. The flexible structure allowed lead learners to change the content to specifically address “reverse racism,” which resulted in a 23% decrease in the number of people in that cohort who felt “reverse racism” was an issue at UCAR.

Each cohort brings new challenges and learning opportunities. Although we strive to both expand our course offerings and keep previous cohorts engaged, as a small office with resource constraints, we have to make compromises. We want to respect the time of our lead learners, who participate in UNEION in addition to their normal workplace responsibilities.  Besides being the “right thing to do,” we know that building a more diverse and inclusive community of researchers, educators, and support staff will help UCAR produce more creative and innovative scientific outcomes.