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How to Level the Training Playing Field

Marginalized groups often lack equal access to training. Here's a three-step plan for HR to create an equitable training and development program.


A group of business people sitting in a conference room.

Most workers are aware that their industries are continually evolving—some, such as tech, more rapidly than others. To stay desirable in the marketplace, employees must acquire new skill sets as their careers progress—and they expect their employers to prioritize the training and development necessary for their growth.

One report found that 86 percent of employees would change jobs for a company with better professional development opportunities. Other research has found that employees who get sufficient training opportunities have a 34 percent higher retention rate than those who do not. Younger employees put an even higher stake on training. Nearly 90 percent of Millennials cite access to professional development or career growth as important in their choice of employers.

Clearly, providing staff valuable learning and advancement opportunities can be a significant differentiator among companies competing for the same talent pools.

But research shows training and professional development are not extended to everyone equally. Employees who are not "plugged in" to available opportunities can't take advantage of them. When workers are not connected to the people and networks that can guide them, they risk treading water rather than moving upstream in their careers.

For example, women often lack the same networking opportunities that are available to men, and people of color may not see themselves reflected in the positions above them, depriving them of valuable mentors. When employees don't see opportunities to progress, they leave in search of other employers that will give them the tools they need to grow.

Development for All

When forming strategies to decrease attrition, HR executives should view skills development through a diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) lens to recognize and address any equality shortfalls within their training and promotion efforts. This is particularly valued by newer generations of workers, given that Millennials and Generation Z are the most diverse generations in U.S. history. Research reveals that 60 percent of Millennials expect their employer to demonstrate commitment to DE&I.

Successful companies have learned that ensuring equitable training and skills development across their organizations can counter the impact of conscious and unconscious bias in the workplace by extending more opportunities to traditionally overlooked groups. Of course, additional skills training doesn't magically remedy generations of skills inequity among employees who are part of historically marginalized groups. But when HR leaders focus less on the skills themselves and more on the people developing the skills, they invest in the long-term success of their employees—and their companies.

Building an equitable training and development program takes a lot of thought and planning. But framing it around these three simple steps can help:

Step 1: Analyze Your Inequalities

HR executives should first uncover their organization's current trends in staff development. Ideally, they should work with their DE&I leaders to identify inequities in development investment, including by demographic. If your organization doesn't have DE&I staff, HR leadership should take the helm. If possible, consider hiring a DE&I consultant to offer an unbiased view of your organization's development initiatives and determine where they fall short.

Deanna Kimbrel, chief diversity officer and director of the Office of Diversity & Inclusion for New York's Monroe County, suggests asking the following questions when analyzing your development investments:

  • Where is development investment going?
  • What policies are in place related to development?
  • Who is entitled to development, and when?
  • What are the results of investments in development?
  • For those who quit, what training did they receive?

One common challenge HR executives encounter at this stage is a lack of relevant internal data. "People are often unaware of developmental trends because they haven't implemented the right technology that will allow them to track those things," Kimbrel says. "It's important to have the right tech in place because it allows you to track consistently." Some of the software solutions that can help companies gather data about their employees' skills development include:

  • Learning management systems.
  • Learning experience systems.
  • Online course software.
  • Micro-learning apps/software.

While the specifics of an ideal HR tech stack may vary based on the organization, having the right tools in place provides the necessary data to identify gaps in existing skills programs. If your organization has invested in more advanced people analytics capabilities, adding this data will give further insight into your skills development efforts and how they overlap with your DE&I initiatives, such as whether employees of certain demographics quit sooner or fail to advance at equal rates within your workforce.

Once you have determined where your inequities lie, the next step is intervening to increase equity—and decrease bias—within your developmental programs.

Step 2: Implement Equitable Strategies 

HR executives should create a talent development strategy based on their research and data by taking the following steps to ensure equitable skills development and training.

  • Create standardized policies. Without consistent policies related to development, Kimbrel says, your organization is setting itself up for inequities by depending on individual employees to make judgment calls about their training. "In some organizations, you may find there's no standardization, and people are pretty much using their self-discretion," she affirms. "By standardizing policies, we can add equity to them because the more policies are based on self-discretion, the more likely they are to have biases surrounding decisions."
  • Rethink the skills and experience required to advance. Stringent job requirements unfairly prevent many people from breaking through to higher-level roles—particularly if they can't easily access training or gain experience, or if the experience is more preferred than required to do the job. For example, Serena Fong, vice president of DE&I partnerships at the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, notes that many companies require CEO experience to serve on a board. This can negatively affect female candidates, since only 10.6 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women.
  • Employ visible stretch assignments. Offering stretch assignments to employees can help them expand their skill sets while also giving employers a fuller picture of the capabilities and potential their employees possess. "Stretch assignments and things of that nature can help equalize development," Kimbrel says. She adds that these assignments can help improve visibility for employees who may not be well-networked within the organization.
  • Customize growth plans. Rather than assigning rigid development tracks or granting access to online courses and wishing employees well, HR leaders should ask employees how they see themselves, how they want to develop and through what mediums they learn best. This guided yet collaborative approach creates a better match between development opportunities and an employee's preferred professional path. Without this exchange, an employee who would rather remain a valuable contributor might be placed on a leadership track they don't want. Embracing this strategy gives your employees ownership over their growth.
  • Walk the walk. HR executives should create development plans that reach every level of an organization and then communicate opportunities widely. Take steps to ensure all employees know how to access the development resources that align with their interests and goals. Let staff know that every employee can come to HR for help designing a personalized development program. Of course, just talking about skills development often isn't enough. "When I am deploying a training within an organization, I start with the leaders," Kimbrel says. "I try to make sure leaders have some perspective and an understanding of what the training is before deploying it out to the entire staff. That way, when questions come up, leaders can share their experience and act as a role model."
  • Communicate plans equitably. "It's critical to ensure communication reaches all people, and that means communicating equitably," Fong says. Consider how to make information about skills training plans widely available and on demand, particularly when you have remote-working employees across several time zones.

Also consider the channels you use to distribute information. For example, you might communicate key training information over e-mail, but that information should also live in an employee intranet where workers can access it any time. Likewise, consider how employees who have been on leave— such as parental, sabbatical or short-term disability—can access this information when they return to work.

Step 3: Unite the C-suite Through Accountability

After putting equitable strategies in place, HR leaders should track employee progress and share it with their executive team on at least a quarterly basis. "If you're only sharing progress once a year, as many organizations do, it's too late," Kimbrel says. "By then, too much time has passed, and you don't have enough time to adjust something that may be missing." Share your goals and progress with your entire organization at least annually. If you don't already, consider publishing an annual DE&I report that includes your upskilling strategies and results.

Accountability—especially at the leadership level—is essential for creating successful skills development programs. Engage your fellow leaders in conversations about types of bias in the workplace and how skills development and DE&I intersect. For even stronger accountability, Kimbrel suggests making equitable development goals a competency for leaders.

"Leaders are critical to the development of employees and those of marginalized backgrounds, and that development should be a leadership competency to add a level of accountability," Kimbrel says. "Equitable skills training creates loyalty within an organization because employees feel that the company is truly interested in their growth and development."

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