The Work is Not the Workshop

In Blog, Diversity & Inclusion by Fatima Dainkeh

Many companies and organizations hire consultants or external facilitators to educate and train their employees on diversity, equity, and inclusion (‘DEI’) related topics. Common training topics include: bias in the workplace, microaggressions, recruiting talent, and creating an inclusive culture within the workplace, to name a few. While we provide training on all of these topics and believe that they are important to discuss within the workplace, we also understand that the workshops themselves are not responsible for individual and institutional change. As facilitators, our job is to provide information, tools, and strategies that will help challenge ideas and practices, create better habits, and ultimately better workplaces. The work itself happens when there is both an intention and an action plan to do deeper work– this often takes trial and error, practice, and most importantly, time. 

With the assumption that you have leadership buy-in and commitment, and dedicated people to lead the work (these people should not just be those with marginalized identities), here are a few things to consider before, during, and after your company participates in a DEI related training:

Ask yourself who the workshop is for and why you want it
People usually contact companies like ours because they are either being proactive or reactive. Proactive inquiries could look like someone asking about our training services because they have leadership buy-in, and leaders recognize that the core aspects of DEI are integral to the success of their employees. Reactive inquiries could look like someone asking us to do a training as soon as possible because something was done or said, and it negatively impacted a few or more people internally, externally, or both. Whatever the situation is, you want to be clear on why you think your company needs training and who it will benefit. Workshops tend to be unsuccessful when a company has a views the workshop as something to check off the list, thinks the workshop will fix all the problems overnight, or the goal only benefits a certain group of employees.

For example, if people of color and allies report that there are continuous racial microaggressions happening in the workplace and nothing is being done about it, some might think that the clear answer to fix this issue would be to hold a workshop on racial microaggressions for the entire team, department, or organization. However, that in and of itself may not be enough, or even helpful for everyone. People who experience racial microaggressions are usually not the audience who these types of trainings are created for or have in mind. The reason for having the workshop in the first place is to help a certain group of people understand and avoid racial microaggressions. As a result, one group might benefit, while another group may have little-to-no benefit. 

A better approach might be to ask employees how they would like their leadership and other employees to respond in situations like this. You might find that employees don’t feel that a workshop is an effective measure at all, or that they might want to see the organization looking at a programmatic and systemic approach instead. You may need to evaluate your cultural practices or policies before doing a workshop. If you do decide to do a workshop, be intentional about bringing in a facilitator who is aware of their identities, knowledgeable about racial identity, and who can provide content that will benefit everyone. This way, all employees are provided with tips, tools and strategies that will support them in the workplace.

Recognize that the workshop itself will not erase historical and systemic oppression
If a workshop sounds like a good idea for your team or you’re willing to give it a try, it’s important to be clear about the objectives and outcomes of the workshop. DEI-related workshops can create space for people to surface issues (e.g.microaggressions or lack of gender representation on a leadership team) that impact employees. However, one workshop probably isn’t going to be extensive enough for employees to really unpack and understand how historical and systemic oppression creates advantages for people with privileged identities, and disadvantages for people with non-privileged identities. 

People have said to us: “we did a workshop on how bias shows up in the workplace but our employees don’t think it’s enough.” This is probably because the issues (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc.) we are trying to surface and eliminate require a societal shift beyond the workplace. Our media, politics, laws and overall cultural ideologies could benefit from a root cause analysis and concrete action steps to dismantle harmful structures. With that said, workplaces are still in a unique position to create policies, practices and an overall culture that is actively working against systems of oppression. We’d recommend doing more than just one training, assessing your organizational structure and implementing a solid action plan and program, if you truly want to address systemic issues.

Be intentional with the amount of time you allot for a workshop
When you decide to do a workshop, you are sending a message– hopefully a positive one– to your employees. The amount of time a company sets aside for a workshop, along with the content, directly correlates with how much employees will get out of it. If a two-hour workshop is what a company is able to make time for, then employees will receive objectives that are achievable within two hours. These types of objectives usually cover surface level topics and are not going to be that interactive. Effective facilitation presents an opportunity for employees to practice having hard conversations in the workplace. With that said, if you are going to take advantage of such an important moment, dedicate substantial time to at least begin doing deeper individual and institutional work. Your people will get the message loud and clear based on how you approach this work. 

Create a concrete action plan 
After a workshop, it is easy for people to ‘check off the box’ and feel like most of the work is done. The harder work (what we refer to as ‘the real work’) happens after the workshop concludes. Ideally, before the workshop, it is beneficial for an organization to already have a vision and action plan in place where a workshop or series of workshops, is just one of many things that needs to happen to help create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. Sometimes after a workshop, things may surface that will require a shift in the action plan. Creating an action plan that is embedded within your company’s strategic plan shows that a company genuinely cares and is willing to hold themselves accountable with action steps, deadlines and people that will get the work done. 

Implement your plan in a timely and sustainable manner 
An action plan is just a wish if you do not take the right steps and allocate resources to move forward and actually do something. An action plan can also shift, and certain priorities may change due to many reasons. Since change takes time, it is important to be transparent with your decisions so that employees understand your company’s choices. It is also important to recognize that certain issues can be addressed within a week– such as adding gender pronouns to email signatures– while other issues need months or even years to adequately address. Having structures in place, especially if there is turnover and new employees come on board, will allow for the work to progress and continue. It also shows that you’ve created a sustainable structure that can out live the people who helped create it– which is a good thing in this case.

Support employees with resources and tools needed to have successful outcomes 
In order to successfully accomplish a goal, there must be resources in place to support each employee at every level. While there may be specific people labeled as the “carriers of the work,” ideally every employee within your company should be taking adequate steps to create a just and inclusive workplace. They can only do this successfully if organizational leaders are providing financial, professional and emotional support. In addition, creating a culture where employees support each other can help build trust and camaraderie among colleagues, which is critical when tackling manifestations of sexism, racism, ableism, etc.  

Continue creating opportunities to grow and learn as individuals and as a team 
Life has taught us that awareness and knowledge does not necessarily equate to change in behavior. Understanding DEI-related issues and creating positive change is life work. It is work that does not just happen in a day or within a year. In order for us to make changes to systems and structures that have existed for hundreds of years, we must actively work every day towards de-constructing practices that harm people, by replacing them with practices that support and uplift people. This can be done through internal and external practices such as effectively implementing affinity groups, creating space to have hard conversations as a team, funding learning opportunities for equity related conferences or retreats, creating a culture of feedback, or making an intentional effort to support and partner with organizations and businesses in the community.