How the Wrong Kind of Training (at the Wrong Time) Can Compromise DEI in the Workplace

Despite a cultural prioritization of DEI in the workplace (particularly over the last 3-5 years), for the majority of Fortune 1000 companies, little progress has been made to attract, retain, and ultimately mobilize diverse talent through the corporate pipeline. The percentage of Black CEOs in America is still microscopic, and underrepresented groups are still leading The Great Resignation – many citing “unfairness” as their reason for leaving.

Why is this the case?

For many organizations, “hiring for diversity” is the core initiative to deliver on DEI pledges, yet with the majority of the budget poured into recruitment, many new employees find (especially at the IC level) that they are lacking in the resources that support sustainable equity and inclusion. Namely: full-scale employee learning and development strategies.

Quality leadership training is commonly reserved for the top 20% of an organization (where representation is resoundingly white and male), while the remaining 80% of employees are left to climb the ladder through trial and error, relying on hard skills trainings that support the falsified notion of the meritocracy (i.e., the quality of your work alone will advance your career).

And given that success in terms of merit is much more easily attained by those for whom corporate bias is a privilege, training and development plans are deserving of much more consideration when striving to improve not only a company’s representation, but the authenticity of equitable opportunity and belonging within its walls.

Without this internal, structural approach, any attempts to onboard diverse talent are likely to result in attrition trends as BIPOC, women, and other underrepresented groups continue to stall out at key promotion cliffs and/or fail to build meaningful relationships with their colleagues.

Hiring for Diversity Without Training for Mobility

First, to clarify: emphasis on hiring isn’t a bad thing – it just cannot be the only thing organizations do to improve DEI in the workplace.

In fact, building a strong pipeline of diverse talent is step one to diversifying the C-Suite, the board, and ultimately the culture of the company at large. But, as any salesperson will tell you: the quality of a pipeline is only as great as its motion. Meaning: you can hire in droves with the best intent, but unless you have the systems in place to keep your talent engaged and advancing to new opportunities, that recruitment budget is likely to inflate as attrition snowballs over time.

To put this in perspective: in a study by Pew Research Center, one of the most frequently-cited reasons for quitting a job in 2021 was “no opportunities for advancement,” second only to “pay was too low.”

For many business leaders, this might come as a surprise. Especially at larger organizations, having a clear vertical for advancement is built into each department. But the problem isn’t necessarily in the availability of these roles; it is in their appeal and attainability to those who are best suited for them.

Employees are not unaware of the infamous corporate ladder; they are just often ill-supported to climb it.

Additionally, when hiring for diversity without follow-up to address the difficulties underrepresented groups may face in navigating internal opportunities – especially when representation is lacking directly above their rank – advancement can feel unrealistic or intimidating, digging into employees’ morale.

So the truth remains…

Simply being good at one’s job isn’t enough to seize meaningful career opportunities or to keep advancing in a direction that feels engaging or fulfilling. Nor are hard skills trainings enough to enable that kind of internal mobility for employees. And if leaders are truly interested in fostering belonging and equity for a diverse workforce, career advancement, networking, and personal fulfillment are key.

Bottom line… the training and development plan that truly impacts DEI isn’t based on hard skills, but is typically reserved for established leaders and withheld from the majority of the organization: how to navigate success and build relationships within the corporate ecosystem. 

The Problem with Traditional Employee Learning and Development Strategies

Executive coaches, management consultants, and other high-level business leadership programs account for a market valued at upwards of $11 billion annually. Many of these services are tailored to help either “high potentials” or those in key stakeholder positions achieve their goals, maintain a strong personal brand, and ultimately continue to unlock their potential.

Organizations are willing to invest in these skills, because it is well known and accepted that they foster better leadership, better performance, and help to curb burnout. The problem is: providing this sort of personalized support isn’t cheap. Therefore, most businesses will only approve a budget targeted towards those who are “most likely” to maximize the investment.

Meaning: if you are lucky enough to make it into the executive or C-level rung of the corporate ladder (wherein representation is near-homogeneous), there are often plenty of resources available to help you maintain your position. Yet this training is critical at every level, not just the upper echelon.

Pre-recorded training courses or low-interaction certificate programs often take the cake when the learning and development budget is doled out beyond the “top players,” which – considering their inarguable ineffectiveness – is rightfully viewed as an ornamental investment in employee growth, more so than a legitimate commitment in full-scale development.

So why do so many businesses follow this pattern?

Because from the top-down, it is difficult to see the unique potential of every individual. It is much easier to put people in boxes in terms of their individual roles and to allot a training and development plan that aligns with those “job-specific skills” than it is to invest in the personal, individualized growth of each team member.

But, again, with hiring for diversity being the first step for many organizations in developing a more equitable workplace, ignoring the nuances, interests, and strengths of employees beyond their departmental titles is not an option – that is, if they expect to not just onboard these hires, but to actually uplift underrepresented talent at every rung of the ladder and create meaningful influence.

The existing polarized investment in talent speaks volumes about a company’s priorities, whether intentional or not. It is also a mistake that leadership cannot afford to make.

In a survey by McKinsey & Co., 39% of respondents reported dismissing employment at an organization because of a “perceived lack of inclusion” in their company culture. To back their suspicions up: the same study gathered that gender, racial, and ethnic minorities are most likely to report slower career progression than their majority-represented peers.

Inclusion = belonging at every step of the corporate hierarchy, not just on the shelf for which one is hired.

Though plenty of organizations are willing to admit how rampant inequity runs through the enterprise, very few choose a meaningful approach to remedying it under their own roof. Relying on bias training (although important) and equipping only senior leadership with career development skills (assuming through reverse osmosis they will be passed down to the majority sector of the workforce…) is not enough to improve DEI in the workplace.

Business leaders need to actively democratize career advancement by putting the tools needed to mobilize directly into more individuals’ hands. 

A Holistic Training and Development Plan

McKinsey & Co. recently reported on the “four critical areas” for building employee capabilities, all of which revolve around developing an IC-level understanding of how the business operates and reaches its goals, alongside how the individual adds value and influences those broader initiatives.

Most executives will agree on these points: employees who actively engage in the business, leveraging their own unique strengths and passions, ultimately pack the biggest punch.

What doesn’t always settle in is that those who are not encouraged or enabled to do so typically suffer feelings of isolation, apathy, and are the first to burn out. Further: when hiring for diversity into a historically non-diverse talent pool, choosing to allocate career advancement training to only the upper echelon of the company results at best in attrition trends – at worst in an overtly political perception of superficial commitment to DEI in the workplace.

But in the spirit of fairness… this tradition of polarized learning and development strategies is not always the sole fault of business leaders.

Frankly, scaling training across an enterprise to enable internal mobility is no easy feat. L&D is often the first department to bear budget cuts when things get tight, and as The Great Resignation rolls on (collecting trillions in attrition costs), the resources continue to thin as demand reaches an all-time high for employee engagement.

Thankfully, The Forem offers a first-of-its-kind, minimal-lift, scalable solution to this problem.

We partner with businesses to empower more employees with the kind of personal branding, networking, self-advocacy, and stakeholder alignment tools that are typically reserved for the C-suite. Because in order to create more seats for diverse talent at the table where decisions are made, we must democratize the skills that help people rise up through the ranks organically. 

Utilizing our portfolio of coaches, mentors, and live-cohort facilitators, along with a proprietary networking and nudge engine to support industry-backed curriculum for career advancement, we are on a mission to move 1M women and underrepresented talent into positions of leadership by 2030.

Talk to our team to learn more about our holistic learning and development plan.

Curious how we do this at scale? Read this.