Back to McKinsey Organization Blog

Don’t train your employees on DE&I. Build their capabilities.

Addressing these common pitfalls can help organizations design and deliver organizational DE&I programs with greater impact.
Drew Goldstein

Advises clients across various industries in creating and sustaining high-performing workplaces with particular expertise in culture, organization design, diversity, equity, and inclusion

Sasha Goluskin

Partners with clients to develop change-ready organizations with a focus on culture and learning initiatives that drive belonging, inclusion, innovation, and performance

Supports organizations in developing talent as a competitive advantage, with specific focus on building more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces

Julia Sperling-Magro

Serves private- and public-sector clients on large-scale organizational transformations, strengthening performance and health through enhanced culture, values, leadership, and talent systems

The past two years have seen an unmatched level of organizational commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). Organizations stand to benefit tremendously by unlocking more inclusive workforce behaviors.

Our research found 51 percent of employees who recently quit their job cited a lack of belonging at work as a critical reason for leaving. Employees from underrepresented identities were even more likely to cite this reason. As organizations diversify their workforce, they must, in tandem, invest in a more inclusive culture to retain these employees and create better outcomes for all.

An inclusion capability-building program is a critical component to this change—when done effectively. Despite significant investment, many organizations run into the same pitfalls that limit their ability to drive and sustain inclusive behavioral change. Here’s how to avoid the top three:

  • Pitfall #1: Focusing all efforts on raising awareness while neglecting broader objectives

    Organizations often dive into DE&I trainings by scheduling a few sessions on assumed “introductory” topics (e.g., unconscious bias, allyship) or launching a longer series on deeper themes (e.g., anti-racism, privilege, identity). These programs start the conversation with awareness, but fail to give concrete direction on what must change, which can result in adverse effects.

    Instead: Start by understanding what will be done differently once the learning journey is complete and how current behaviors impact experiences of inclusion. Survey employees through a comprehensive inclusion assessment, focus groups, or interviews to envision a more inclusive culture and understand current gaps. Our research shows a core set of practices create the experience of inclusion at individual and enterprise levels; determine the biggest priorities for employees and specific gaps in inclusivity, then marry that feedback with research-backed programming designed to teach behaviors that employees can practice to be more inclusive. Though programming should be specific to organization needs, we typically see successful programs include curriculum around mentorship/sponsorship, inclusive leadership, decision making, allyship, and addressing bias.

  • Pitfall #2: Requiring everyone attend mandatory, non-tailored trainings

    Organizations often emphasize the importance of DE&I trainings by making them mandatory for all employees. Their intentions are virtuous: This is a strategic priority, and everyone needs to work with the same information. However, this can result in trainings becoming a “check the box” effort with attendance as the success metric. Multiple studies show mandates can backfire, with some individuals feeling that their agency is diminished, which may lead to more animosity following the program. Participants who feel forced to engage on DE&I topics may feel resentful and decrease psychological safety for other learners.

    Instead: Some programs or roles might justify mandatory attendance, like harassment policy compliance and minimizing bias during interviews. Others may require more creativity to increase optional attendance, including leadership role modeling, a sustained communications plan reiterating a compelling value proposition, and an “opt-out” registration process. The goal should be to create a program where individuals are compelled to attend but invited to participate rather than pushed into it. Evaluate success based on post-session impact and measurable behavior change, not just number of attendees.

  • Pitfall #3: Using a business-as-usual approach, lacking focus on the human side of behavior change

    Discussing equity and inclusion (or a lack thereof) can be complex, raising deeply entrenched mindsets around power, privilege, and the status quo, and the conversations required can often be uncomfortable. Organizations often design DE&I capability-building programs without taking this into consideration, leading to long sessions focused on statistics with little interaction, facilitators unequipped to discuss DE&I topics in depth, and limited time for reflection and practice. Employees are told they need to change, rather than invited into a conversation and asked to explore how change may benefit not just others but their own experience as well.

    Instead: Meet employees where they are in their individual DE&I journeys with space to reflect, discuss, and practice in small groups. Design shorter, more frequent sessions to sustain momentum without overwhelming the audience. Require that facilitators are knowledgeable about DE&I, willing to authentically share their own experiences, and able to create a safe space for vulnerable reflections.

Inclusion capability building, especially at its best, may feel challenging and complex. However, when done well, these efforts can support and generate courageous workplace conversations that ultimately yield greater belonging and transform organizational cultures.

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice