Jenny Baker
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The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice

Kimberly Adams,Independent Consultant, and Stephanie Zajac, UT MD Anderson Cancer Center


“The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice” is a TIP column that seeks to help facilitate additional learning and knowledge transfer to encourage sound, evidence-based practice. It can provide academics with an opportunity to discuss the potential and/or realized practical implications of their research as well as learn about cutting-edge practice issues or questions that could inform new research programs or studies. For practitioners, it provides opportunities to learn about the latest research findings that could prompt new techniques, solutions, or services that would benefit the external client community. It also provides practitioners with an opportunity to highlight key practice issues, challenges, trends, and so forth that may benefit from additional research. In this issue, we explore best practices and lessons from the field in the space of diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives with Juan Madera, Keli Wilson, and Mark Nagy.


D&I Initiatives: Best Practices and Lessons From the Field

Juan Madera, Keli Wilson, and Mark Nagy


Juan M. Madera, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Houston (UH). He is the author of more than 60 peer-reviewed journal articles, trade articles, and book chapters. His research focuses on diversity and inclusion management in the hospitality industry. He also serves as a research fellow for the UH ADVANCE Center, funded by an NSF grant awarded to the university. His research examines biases against women in the academic selection process, such as biases in letters of recommendations for assistant professor positions, how demographic characteristics of search committees affect diversity in applicant pools, and biases in the promotion process. He has published this research in journals such as the Journal of Applied Psychology and has been featured in outlets such as Inside Higher Ed.

Keli Wilson, MA, is a senior manager of EEO Compliance and D&I, principal consultant skill level, with DCI Consulting Group, Inc. (DCI). Keli manages a team of associate principal and senior consultants who assist contractors with compliance needs, such as affirmative action plan development, pay equity analyses, strategic audit advice, and training support. She leads the diversity and inclusion work through metrics driven services. She writes blogs and papers, presents at local and national conferences, and cohosts a podcast, The EEO Studio, on diversity and compliance driven topics. Keli received an MA degree in industrial and organizational psychology from Xavier University and BA degree in psychology from West Virginia University.

Mark Nagy, PhD, is the director of the Industrial-Organizational Psychology Master of Arts graduate program at Xavier University. He has over 40 national conference presentations and 18 published articles in several journals, including The Psychologist-Manager Journal, The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, and Applied HRM Research. He has provided consulting services on a variety of organizational projects, such as developing and analyzing employee assessments, conducting training needs assessments, providing statistical consultation, and creating and analyzing employee surveys, including an employee survey that had been distributed nationally across the Veterans Health Administration for a number of years. His current interests include employee engagement surveys and civility in the workplace, and he has recently created and validated a multidimensional assessment of workplace civility.


The current article draws from a series of SIOP panels and interactive fishbowl sessions on learning and development for workplace diversity and inclusion (D&I). The sessions represented a collaborative partnership by bringing together scholars and practitioners to address current trends, best practices, and future directions for D&I initiatives. The output of these sessions, including pressing questions and the collective knowledge of SIOP members practicing in the field, was captured via a live audience response platform. Here, leading experts in the field pull together and expand on key themes.

Q&A With the Experts

  1. How do you effectively integrate diversity training into your workplace? How do we move beyond check-the-box D&I training?
  • Incorporate action planning and accountability into D&I training initiatives. This theme converges on the fact that D&I training should not be an isolated initiative, a training that ends after course completion. The success of D&I training should be viewed as a continuous process with action planning, post-training activities, and program evaluation built into the training design. To do so, there must be accountability from leadership to assure that D&I goals are being met. For example, creating executive positions related to administrating D&I initiatives is commonly cited in the literature (Richard, 2000). These positions are responsible for monitoring D&I outcomes in organizations (e.g., recruitment and retention rates of women and ethnic minorities as well as their promotion into leadership positions). Both practitioners and scholars argue that direct involvement in D&I training from top leaders can serve as a signal to employees about an organization’s commitment to D&I.
  • Embed D&I into other processes. D&I training should be part of broader HR initiatives such as talent acquisition, learning and development, and talent management. In other words, D&I training should not be introduced as a training program that employees are required to complete during orientation or on a yearly basis. Stand-alone D&I training that focuses on legal and compliance issues is often viewed as check-the-box training. Instead, training should be discussed as part of the broader learning and development initiatives that organizations offer. This observation by the panelists and fishbowl participants reflects research that shows that employees have positive reactions toward D&I training when it is integrated with other learning and development programs (Bezrukova, Jehn & Spell, 2012).
  • Integrate D&I into the culture and values exhibited in daily tasks. By integrating D&I into the corporate mission, value statements, and performance expectations, organizations signal to employees that D&I is part of an organization’s culture. D&I initiatives should not focus strictly on employee training, but rather the principles should be reinforced and supported throughout an employee’s tenure. To do so, build a performance management system that clearly defines D&I expectations across all levels of the organization. 
  • Expand D&I initiatives to encompass workplace civility. Employees do not have to agree on everything, but they must respect one another for any D&I initiative to be successful. Any successful D&I initiative starts, and ends, with respect among employees. Organizations need to identify a common goal for each of their functional workgroups and then determine how those workgroups will work together cohesively. Boundaries of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors must be created within workgroups, as norms for mutual respect are best determined at the local level. With the support of upper management, once those boundaries are established and understood, each workgroup member can hold others accountable for instances of disrespectful behavior. In this way, organizations will begin to transform their culture into one of mutual respect, which, practically by definition, involves acceptance of diversity and inclusion.
  1. What challenges have practitioners faced in implementing D&I training strategies that could be used to inform future research questions?
  • Backlash from majority groups with a preconceived narrative against D&I training. One of the biggest challenges that practitioners face during D&I training is backlash from majority groups. This challenge is evident in the literature and observed by practitioners (Brannon, Carter, Murdock‐Perriera & Higginbotham, 2018; Dobbin & Kalev, 2016; Kidder, Lankau, Chrobot-Mason, Mollica, & Friedman, 2004). One potential reason for backlash is that D&I training can highlight group differences, bringing to light in-group and out-group dynamics. A related potential reason for backlash is D&I training that is delivered in a manner that blames majority group members. Discussions of power and status differences among groups (e.g., the majority of organizational leaders are White men) can prime feelings of blame and shame, stereotypes that can explain differences, or resentment. Instead, practitioners should focus on minimizing discussions, activities, and methods that can bring forth backlash.
  • Fear of communicating any diversity related messages that are not perfect. Another theme around backlash centered on fear of not having a perfect message. Organizational leaders who want to support D&I training initiatives might hesitate to articulate their support because of fear of saying something that can be perceived as negative. An example is how former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was criticized for saying “I don't see color” in response to a racial profiling incident involving two African American men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. Although his intentions were good, his message reflected the privilege of not having to worry about his own skin color in social interactions. Other organizational leaders might view this type of scrutiny as a rationale for the fear of using the wrong words. As such, D&I practitioners might want to work alongside leaders to help them develop strong messages, which will help alleviate this fear. 
  • Identifying/measuring behavior change. When developing and implementing D&I training, practitioners often face the challenge of identifying outcomes; should training merely create positive reactions, or change behaviors and attitudes? A recent meta-analysis of D&I training outcomes found that D&I training had larger outcomes for reactions to training and cognitive learning as compared to behavioral and attitudinal learning outcomes (Bezrukova, Spell, Perry & Jehn, 2016). Cognitive learning remained stable over time. The short-term effects on attitudes and behaviors suggests that D&I training should be a continuous process, a sentiment that many D&I practitioners shared during the sessions. Another theme that emerged is the idea that outcomes depend on the goal of the D&I training. The measurement of outcomes should reflect the strategic goals of D&I training.
  • Establish ROI of D&I programs via similar constructs. Until it can be shown that D&I initiatives can make a positive impact on the bottom line, many organizations will be reluctant to spend a great deal of resources on D&I training. Although much of the research on the effectiveness of D&I programs is mixed (Kulik, Pepper, Roberson & Parker, 2007; Roberson & Park, 2007), research in areas related to D&I has shown the investment can pay dividends. For instance, research (Nagy, Warren, Osatuke & Dyrenforth, 2007) has demonstrated that hospitals with below-average civility scores spent more than twice as much on Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints than hospitals with above average civility scores. This same research found that hospitals with above average civility scores saved at least $120 per employee on sick leave usage than hospitals with below average civility scores. Additional research needs to be conducted to show the monetary benefits of increasing D&I in the workplace.
  1. What advice do you have for organizations just beginning their D&I journey? What's low hanging fruit? Quick wins?
  • Promote proactive interest and support by leadership. Companies can be at different starting points in terms of resources, budget, and time dedicated to D&I initiatives. A helpful starting point is to understand why the organization is beginning their journey and identify the stakeholders. Leadership interest in being a “best practice” employer and competitive in the market is a common theme for engaging in a D&I program. There are companies seeking this proactive stance and commitment to inclusive work environments. CEOs are recognizing the importance of D&I and are publicly pledging commitment to build trust through difficult but necessary conversations, provide education on unconscious biases, and share best practices between organizations to enhance diversity and inclusion strategies (Feloni & Turner, 2017). Common allies in the D&I journey tend to be leadership, legal, talent acquisition, compensation, and HR/compliance.
  • Be cognizant of federal compliance requirements. Another reason for companies to initiate D&I programs is due to federal enforcement agencies, such as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), that are equipped to investigate employment practices. At an increasing rate, federal, state, and local governances are issuing laws that impact company practices. For example, a hot topic right now in the D&I space is pay equity and some state laws now ban companies from asking for prior salary. Companies need to be ready as new laws emerge to assess policies and procedures and make changes that are legally sound, as well as meet internal diversity initiatives to be inclusive and provide equal employment opportunity.
  • Start with a similarity focus to increase acceptance. Many D&I programs focus on differences, not similarities, yet we know from social psychology that people tend to engage in the similar-to-me bias. In other words, we tend to like others who are similar to ourselves, so emphasizing differences is not a great place to start. The truth is, we have much more in common with each other than differences. Consequently, to assist in the acceptance of a D&I initiative, more attention should be placed on emphasizing our similarities than our differences. Organizations can start by focusing on the common goals or mission of the organization. For instance, if an organization’s mission is to provide the best widget at the most affordable price, the organization should identify the role of all employees in accomplishing that common goal. By focusing a D&I initiative on those similarities first, organizations can set the stage to be more accepting of differences later.
  • Consider a reactive stance to garner support for D&I initiatives. Finally, it is possible that D&I is a reactive effort to address concerns with public relations (e.g., public backlash from an employment-discrimination finding), employment engagement findings, or applicant and employee complaints. Starbucks again is a great example of reactive efforts when they closed their stores (roughly 8,000 stores) for a “racial bias education day” after an employee called the police on two African American men. Data analytics could be a quick win for stakeholders in terms of identifying and mitigating such workplace barriers and therefore the need for a reactive stance (e.g., adverse impact, survival analysis, pay equity study). A best practice would be to seek legal counsel and privilege when conducting such analyses.
  1. There are a lot of D&I training programs available with various components (design features, content). What do you believe to be the key components that make a difference?
  • Leveraging legal frameworks. From a practitioner standpoint, federal statutes, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 11246, have been the foundation of D&I training programs. Case law helps create the framework for developing best practice policies and programs for attracting, selecting, retaining, and promoting talent. This seems to be a starting point for diversity awareness and a means for corrective action in the workplace. Further demonstrating the connection of legal issues and D&I training, researchers found that 40% of the high-profile employment-discrimination lawsuits studied had court-mandated diversity-related training (Hirsh & Cha, 2017). The researchers discuss the increase in managerial diversity through accountability-driven policies, for example affirmative-action plans or targeted recruitment (Hirsh & Cha, 2017). It may not be training alone but an action plan with accountability that creates a movement of change in the organization.
  • Incorporating alternative training formats and topics. An evolving focus by the EEOC is to find more effective training strategies to shift workplace cultures toward prevention of workplace harassment. The EEOC created a Select Task Force to study workplace harassment and identify new training models that the EEOC Training Institute can adopt. The EEOC Select Task Force noted bystander intervention training and civility training to be two encouraging programs to help prevent harassment in the workplace (USEEOC, 2016). A variety of discrimination-prevention-training opportunities and resources are provided on their website.
  • Avoiding blame and focusing on the future. It may sound obvious, but a D&I program must be inclusive. It must be careful not to place blame on a certain demographic group for past transgressions. Importantly, a D&I program must not look at the past but, rather, must concentrate on the future. A D&I program must emphasize how the organization wants all employees to treat others in the future. Finally, a D&I initiative must have the full support of upper management and that support includes disciplining any employee, no matter the organizational level, if the employee engages in inappropriate conduct.


We draw from DiversityInc, a leading organization focused on raising awareness of the benefits D&I brings to companies, to offer some concluding remarks. Their annual list of the top 50 companies for diversity includes multiple Fortune 500 organizations that can inform and motivate D&I scholars and practitioners to think about D&I goals and strategies to ensure that D&I initiatives are successful. The common elements among these organizations include (a) senior leadership commitment, (b) mentoring, (c) inclusion of women in all levels of management, (d) employee resource groups, and (e) supplier diversity. It is no surprise that all of these organizations promote D&I at every level of the organization, starting with senior leadership, such as CEOs who communicate the importance of D&I. The importance of leadership and embedding D&I in all levels of an organization were central themes we discussed in our panels. In order for D&I to be successful, it should not be planned, developed, and delivered in a vacuum, as a one-time training that includes checking off a box. Instead, our discussion and organizations from DiversityInc’s top organizations point to the importance of incorporating D&I into continuous onboarding initiatives, employee learning and development programs, appraisal and promotion systems, and into the culture of an organization.


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