The Untapped DEI Strategists Inside Your Company

August 8, 2022
7 min

Mathison's head of DEI training shares insights based on interactions over the past 18 years with many industries, companies and locations:

There are a few common paths companies tend to take when they’re ready to amp up their diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging strategy. Often it goes like this: 

  • Stand up a DEI Council of cross-functional folks
  • Build and activate Affinity Groups (which later become ERGs/employee resource groups, and then later become BRGs/business resource groups) 
  • Engage leadership (via exec sponsorship, DEI goals, maybe another DEI council just for execs)
  • Hire a head of DEI, who then builds out a team
  • Ensure all of the above + HR work together to support each other - and keep iterating 

These steps are sometimes done in a different order; sometimes they happen at the same time; sometimes more or less steps are in the mix - but generally, these are the common tactics companies use. And I’m a fan of a lot of these things - especially when they all work together, support each other, and embed DEI throughout business operations and systems. 

But throughout my 18+ year career, I’ve seen so many companies I’ve worked closely with overlook one key pocket of pure DEI strategy and insight: trainers. You may call them Learning & Development, Training Delivery, Enablement, or something else entirely: but the people designing, leading, and running training sessions at your organization are often highly underutilized. They could be doing so much more for you, especially in your DEI space - and there are many reasons why.

Three Key Reasons Trainers Are One Of Your Biggest Untapped DEI Resources

  1. They create psychologically safe environments

Trainers know that learning and retention are only possible if employees feel safe to share ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes without being punished or humiliated (psychological safety). The best trainers build these principles into how they run their sessions and how they carry themselves outside of their sessions. They keep confidences; they hold space for uncomfortable or sensitive topics; and they’re able to show empathy because of how many other stories they’ve heard. It’s very common for employees/members of the company to connect with a trainer after training sessions to ask for advice or share about a work situation they are experiencing. 

  1. They are well-networked & culturally aware 

Trainers have the type of job where they get to meet and deeply connect with more employees in a company than almost any other role. In fact, the ones who do new hire training have sometimes met EVERYONE in the company. It’s pretty impressive the amount of connections and relationships they have across all the work groups and locations - including employees who speak different languages, have different needs, and come from different lived experiences. This comes in handy when someone shares a problem or dilemma with them, because even if they’re not the right person to help - they usually know who can. Influence and network are powerful tools when it comes to equity and access, and trainers know how to use those tools for good. Double plus bonus? Many trainers are in HR - or work closely with HR - so many employees approach them about things they are not ready to officially report to HR yet. Trust me: ask any of your trainer friends if this happens to them. Their fingers are on the pulse of everyday employee experience and general sentiment.

  1. They are experts in behavior change 

This is maybe the least obvious one - but it shouldn’t be! The job of trainers is to inspire, shape, and reinforce behavior change. That’s the goal of every training session that’s ever existed. (And if it’s not - it’s not training; it’s something being mislabeled as training.) And that’s the goal of DEI initiatives, too: behavior change. Behavior change can be anything from cultivating a growth mindset, becoming more self-aware, soliciting feedback, measuring small wins that add up to bigger wins, celebrating changed behavior, encouraging retention, and setting up environments that allow all of the above to happen. Your trainers design for behavior change in almost everything they do, and it’s what your DEI strategy needs.

How to Get Trainers More Involved

It’s worth acknowledging that many companies value their training/learning team. Your leaders may well support your training programs and speak respectfully about the topics and the trainers. They may even have a great relationship with the head of the department and collaborate with them often. But unfortunately, even in the best situations, trainers are highly underutilized when it comes to DEI.

Here are some ways to make the most of trainers within your organization from a DEI mindset:

  • Involve them in your DEI training strategy. Instead of going to your training team with a specific DEI topic you want them to do a training on, invite them into the conversation that happens before that. Tell them why you are thinking about this topic, and ask their thoughts about the highest and best need when it comes to DEI in their workgroup. Ask them if they think a training session is the best solution. You may be blown away by how well they know your workgroup and what it needs, beyond training, even. 
  • Treat them as trusted advisors to your top leaders / DEI team / DEI councils, etc. Better than any electronic, anonymous, company-wide engagement survey where people aren’t always honest with their answers, you can bet they’re honest when they confide in your trainers. While maintaining confidentiality and anonymity, your trainers can give you very clear indicators of what parts of your business are not inclusive, equitable or psychologically safe - because people have trusted them to tell them. And they take confidentiality seriously, so they’ll find the right way to summarize and tell you without breaking any confidences. Consider doing quarterly listening sessions with your training team. Or give them a forum to suggest solutions to DEI gaps in the company.
  • Invest in them. All too often, trainers hit career growth dead-ends much quicker than other workgroups. This group of humans who help others grow their careers daily, don’t usually have a career path within their organization if their goal is to stay in training. Check on their salaries, if their titles fit the work they’re doing, how recently they were promoted, what growth is available to them, and if they have enough people on their teams to do the heavy emotional labor of their work without burning out. Your training team has much potential to revolutionize your workplace, but they can’t do it if they’re exhausted or if they have to leave to get the resources they need. 

…And finally, the best thing you can do is ask them directly. Your trainers know what barriers are in their way, and they’re likely very aware of all they could be doing - if only the business saw them and treated them as more than people to check the box on an unconscious bias or a harassment training. Those 3-5 goals your DEI Council put together could happen much sooner if you tapped into this resource - and got more curious in general about finding untapped resources in your company. Many of which are just waiting for an opportunity to share their thought leadership and their support.

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