In April 2022, we convened a roundtable for leaders to discuss how L&D functions can make employee development more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. This session was part of our research into what we're calling L&D's DEIB Opportunity. We aim to identify the most effective things that L&D functions can do to support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts in their organizations.
This readout shares some of the highlights from the session. Thank you to all who participated, shared their experiences, and learned from one another.
L&D's DEIB commitments are growing
To frame the conversation, we shared data from LinkedIn Learning’s 2021 and 2022 Workplace Learning Reports (Figure 1). L&D functions are not only planning more DEIB programs, but they’re taking on more ownership of DEIB efforts.
When we asked roundtable participants if they were seeing or experiencing this trend themselves, they agreed. They wrote in the chat things like:
- “Without a doubt”
How can L&D functions meet these growing responsibilities?
To answer this question, we focused on how L&D functions can make the systems of employee development in their organizations more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. We discussed 4 aspects of employee development:
- Discovery. How do employees find out about development opportunities? How can L&D functions enable different groups to more equitably discover those opportunities?
- Access. Which employees could take advantage of development opportunities if they chose? Who has permission / is nominated to attend? Who has the right tech? How can L&D functions enable different groups to more equitably access development opportunities?
- Participation. Which employees participate in development opportunities? How does participation differ across groups, and why? How can L&D functions enable more equitable participation across groups?
- L&D itself. How might L&D’s systems and processes be biased or inequitable? How might L&D functions address those inequities?
The roundtable generated a number of insights we thought worth highlighting. Here are our top 5 takeaways.
To make learning more DEIB, focus on how decisions are made
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ways decisions are made have a huge effect on whether employee development is equitable, inclusive, and accessible across the various groups in an organization. Decisions about who can access certain development opportunities are particularly impactful. One participant shared the following anecdote:
I used to work for a large corporation. Pre-pandemic, we would fly people in for exclusive leadership development programs. The lack of diversity was astounding. The programs are great, but they're often reserved for people who are already privileged. I had to ask myself: Who's approving these attendees? Who's got the budget?
Leaders shared 2 ideas for reducing such biases.
- Make decisions transparent. One organization implemented decision-making frameworks to help managers and leaders understand the different factors that weighed into their decisions. These frameworks also help leaders explicitly focus on the criteria that align with their values and the organization's values.
- Make matches, not decisions. Another organization is using skills to remove some decisions entirely. By ensuring every employee has a skills profile (or skills signature), the organization can match employees with specific skills needs and gaps with appropriate development opportunities. The system makes the match, not a leader.
We thought these 2 ideas for reducing bias in decision-making were practical approaches that might apply in many organizations.
Marketing and messaging can include or exclude
A second insight from the group is just how important marketing and messaging are. They influence who learns about what development opportunities and—arguably more important—who decides to take advantage of those opportunities.
A portion of the conversation focused on whether outreach and marketing activities reach the people L&D functions intend them to. As one leader put it:
It's inequitable if L&D sends an email about a development opportunity and 30% of your workforce doesn't use email.
Leaders suggested marketing development opportunities in multiple channels—overcommunicating—and ensuring opportunities are marketed where employees are. For example, a paper flyer in a break room or stand-up meeting might be most effective for reaching front-line employees who do not regularly check email.
In addition, leaders noted that the language, visuals, and tone used in marketing communications about development opportunities can affect whether an employee thinks an opportunity will be relevant and helpful to them. They should be able to see themselves in the opportunity, or they may not choose to participate even if they have access.
Analytics and data can reveal systemic inequities
Leaders in this roundtable emphasized the need to check assumptions about whether development opportunities are as DEIB as L&D functions might hope. Ideally, they said, the demographics of the people who participate in development opportunities should roughly mirror the demographics of the organization's employee population.
Leaders shared that some reasons for differences in participation rates between groups might be:
- Lack of technical access to training (e.g., cannot access learning on mobile phone, do not have a company-provided device, do not have good enough internet access). The ability to pay for tech to access development opportunities is also a potential source of inequity.
- Messaging / marketing doesn’t speak to certain groups
- Certain employees aren't afforded the time to access learning within their work day and cannot / do not want to participate on their own time
Tracking participation in development opportunities over time to see if attendees do, in fact, mirror the population can help reveal possible gaps in marketing / messaging, access, etc. The importance of tracking data over time was articulated by one leader who noted:
We can make plans that we think allow for universal access, but until we check to see whether in fact the result is representative participation, we don’t know whether our approaches are in fact creating equal access.
One leader shared that in her organization, they do A/B testing like marketers. They look to see who's registering for opportunities, who shows up, who consumes content online, etc. They analyze this data by all demographic / diversity statistics that are available.
L&D functions should rely on DEIB resources across the organization
Leaders in this roundtable agreed that as L&D functions take on more of a role in DEIB efforts, they cannot and should not do it alone. There are many resources across an organization that can help L&D functions identify and address inequities in employee development.
For example, the leader whose organization does A/B testing recommended reaching out to the IT team. They can help L&D functions access data about who's clicking where, which employees have company-supported devices, and—in many organizations—aggregated data on how many employees have downloaded accessibility software (screen readers, etc.).
Other leaders noted all that DEIB teams can offer. A number of leaders said the DEIB teams in their organizations do "fairness audits" for business functions to help identify gaps. They can do this for the L&D team, for example by auditing the fairness of L&D's messaging, communications, and learning platforms.
A third resource leaders noted were Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). They recommended involving ERGs in marketing / messaging for development opportunities, assessment of how different opportunities appeal to / impact different groups, and the creation of new opportunities.
Virtual work made some learning more equitable
Leaders noted that when the pandemic forced them to put many in-person, cohort-based development opportunities online, they saw a marked increase in participation rates in these programs. And not only did participation increase, but it often increased in terms of diversity: more diverse employees attended. Leaders attributed this change to a few factors:
- Virtual is easier to attend. Trainings were shorter and didn't require travel or overnights away from home. This meant it was easier for caregivers (who are disproportionately women and members of underrepresented groups) to attend.
- Diversity begets diversity. Leaders reported that in their organizations, as more people saw people like themselves participating in or leading learning, they felt more comfortable participating themselves. As such, they saw an increase in participation from people who'd never attended trainings.
One leader offered a counterpoint to this general trend. After the pandemic started and her organization shifted to remote work, she saw a marked decrease in participation rates. When she asked employees why, they told her that before the pandemic, they only requested to attend training because it got them out of the office. Their experience in-office was toxic; they felt they couldn't express themselves. Working from home, they didn't feel the same need to escape.
We were grateful for the open and vulnerable discussion during this roundtable. We welcome your suggestions, thoughts, and feedback at [email protected]