Embracing diversity and inclusion as a learning organisation

D&I today

There have been a lot of conversations around the topic of Diversity and Inclusion in Europe since last year. I’ve been working in the field for the past 6 years. At every networking event, at every gathering with friends, the question `What do you do for work? – had been my biggest nightmare because I knew this would end up in a long conversation where I would be patiently trying to explain the purpose of my job to strangers to receive something like “Oh, I understood! You help refugees integrate into Germany! Gotcha!’).

Since July 2020, things have changed radically. Not only now you don’t need to explain what D&I stands for, but you would also find every tenth person to be some sort of D&I practitioner as well – a rarity before 2019-2020. At the same time, many companies are also jumping on board and want to do something or really, anything related to diversity. But where and how to start?

My own story

My first connection to the topic began back in 2005 when I moved from Moscow to New Zealand as a young teenager. When I was at school, I was different. I spoke English with an accent, ate different food, had a different behavior, and had different values. I simply didn’t fit in. It’s hard enough to be a teenager, but it’s much more challenging when you are doing this on the other side of the world, in a different language and culture. I was discriminated against and bullied: ‘Are you a mail-order bride? Is your mum then? Russian women are gold-diggers!’ – mind you, I was 13. ‘Russian men are all part of Putin’s mafia! You are lucky to be in our country!’

It was back then when my mission to bring people together, create safe spaces, and bridge the differences had begun. Later I studied International Business and Marketing, then got a scholarship to study in Salamanca (Spain), then another in Heidelberg (Germany). In 2014, I was selected from 3000+ applicants as one of the 50 finalists from all over the world to be invited to Bali to represent New Zealand at the ‘Unity in Diversity’ UN Forum. That’s where I first met the former Secretary-General Ban-ki-Moon and participated in drafting a UN resolution on the topic of diversity. A year later I got a job at a Fortune 500 company and ended up working in South Korea being the only Westerner in the team.

Fast forward 7 years, today I work with startups, global corporations, embassies, and business schools, supporting diversity assessment and management, inclusive leadership, and bridging the gaps in communication.

Emotional labour

The topic of D&I is complex, uncomfortable, and holds a lot of emotional labour.

In my circle of friends and practitioners, we are sometimes so tired and emotionally exhausted that we dream of moving into the tech field so we could just work with numbers and spreadsheets, avoiding people and all the complexity and sensitivity that comes with the topic.

Contrary to the name, when you work in the field, you end up working a lot with exclusion and NOT inclusion. Acting as a mediator, resolving discriminatory cases, facilitating difficult conversations, and politely debating with those who see the topic as something absurd and a ‘sick trend which is a danger to our society’.

On other days, we joke that we are the ‘pioneers’ in the industry and many years later, our names and deeds will be remembered just like Loujain Alhathloul and Malala Yousafzai’s and many other inspiring activists. We go against society, challenging norms and asking a lot of uncomfortable questions. Sometimes hopeless and emotionally drained, exposing our personal stories of exclusion, discrimination, and fears… and feeling like Sisphys from the Greek mythology, rolling a heavy boulder up a hill for eternity to see it roll downhill in no time. But I’m rambling now, that’s a completely different story.

In this article, I would like to focus on how to take the first steps into Diversity and Inclusion in your organisation (see how I didn’t just say ‘roll out a D&I training or program’?). I will discuss the common mistakes, important things you need to take into account, and how to use your expertise as a learning designer to help people learn to unlearn. Let’s go!

What is D&I?

Diversity refers to the variety of similarities and differences among people, including but not limited to: gender, gender identity, ethnicity, race, native or indigenous origin, age, generation, sexual orientation, culture, religion, belief system, marital status, parental status, socio-economic difference, appearance, language and accent, disability, mental health, education, geography, nationality, work style, work experience, job role, and function, thinking style, and personality.

Diversity is just a mix, it is simply a quantitative representation. Many are repeatedly echoing what they hear in articles and in leadership training without giving it too much thought: ‘diverse teams are creative, more innovative and engaging, we need to hire more diverse people in our organisation!’

However, many forget one important factor: diversity is a conflict. Diversity is a misunderstanding. Diversity is friction. Try making a decision with a group of people who have different backgrounds (e.g. gender, education, industry). And then try doing the same thing with a group of people who studied the same thing, have the same hobbies, and have a similar group of friends.

Of course, the first group will take twice as long. But do we want to make a fast decision or do we want to make a good decision that supports our organisation, reflects our client’s needs, and produces an innovative product? Perhaps running fast is not as important. Here is a good example of what happens when our decisions are eroded with biases, and the team is homogeneous, full of group-think.

Diversity in the 21st century is a fact, while inclusion is a choice. You can be an extremely diverse organisation, but if you are not inclusive, all these beautiful diverse perspectives, points of view, and opinions will be left at home, because your employees wouldn’t feel safe expressing their own views at work and rather act and think a certain way to ‘fit in’.

So basically you are not only missing out on all these amazing opportunities and not benefiting from what diversity has to offer but also have to deal with the negative side of diversity mentioned above. Inclusion is a managed diversity. According to Deloitte, the research identifies a very basic formula: Diversity + inclusion = better business outcomes. Simply put, diversity without inclusion is worth less than when the two are combined.

As Vernā Myers once put it: Diversity is invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.

Diversity fatigue

Do you suffer from diversity fatigue? Are you overwhelmed by the terms, definitions, best practices? Are you afraid to say or do something inappropriate which could offend or make someone angry? And you decided to rather not say anything since it is scary and unpredictable… You are not the only one.’ … leaders are so terrified about messing up and saying the wrong thing to all their stakeholders —employees, board members, funders, clients, customers — or the wider world via social media — that they’re paralyzed into inaction.

The best way to get over your fear of talking about diversity, especially if you are a representative of a dominant group is to get comfortable being uncomfortable. The topic won’t go anywhere and it is slowly becoming normalized. It’s not an easy topic but there are a lot of great resources online where you can learn about communities you’re not familiar with: challenges of being a parent, gay, black, trans, a woman, a migrant, significantly older/ younger than most of your colleagues, etc. Don’t blame yourself, don’t be afraid to make a mistake, you’ll do great!

Last year, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter Movement, I sat down for a couple of days and collected almost 150 terms and definitions related to DIB. You can find them here. Feel free to use and spread across your organisation.

I identify 4 different types of organisations that seek external support. I am sure there are more, but those are the most I’m working with.


  • I want to do something regarding D&I in my organisation. I don’t really know what and how, I have limited budget/ time/ energy, so let’s see what we can do with that.


  • We’ve had a recent case of discrimination which we managed to be swipe under the carpet, but it was stressful (or/and expensive) to handle. We don’t want to experience it again. Can you please give us a training so our employees know how to behave and what not to say so it doesn’t ever happen?


  • D&I is the core of our identity. We would like to raise awareness of our employees about the basics of D&I and why it is important to us. Let’s have a keynote or a couple of 1-2hr workshops.
  • We know that we can do better regarding (e.g. diversity hiring, inclusive leadership, gender representation in leadership, etc). There is a lot of work to do and we know it takes time to actually make a difference. Let’s find our priorities together and manage realistic expectations of what we can and cannot do. We don’t expect a quick fix.


  • We know our key struggles regarding D&I and are consistently working on addressing them. We would like to continue working on diversity and inclusion in our company and maintain the same (or better!) momentum because D&I is a journey, not a destination.

So, let’s imagine you got a green light regarding D&I in your organisation. You know that there is a lot of work, there is budget, time, energy and other resources available. So, what’s next?

Steps for building a successful D&I program

  • Start with the workplace inclusion diagnostic. Collect data: both qualitative – to check your company’s ‘temperature’ (this can be done through internal surveys, focus groups, interviews with employees from underrepresented groups), and quantitative research: analyse procedures and processes for recruitment, promotion, performance reviews, employee representation across organisations. But be careful, in some countries, like Germany, you cannot collect employee personal data related to diversity metrics. Check out this helpful D&I Starter Kit by CultureAmp and Organisational Self-Assessment;
  • Show the results to your executive stakeholders and get their buy-in and required resources for the next steps (VERY IMPORTANT – learn here how to achieve it);
  • Prioritization exercise of your areas of concern (I usually do it with D&I canva, industry-wide benchmarking);
  • Find your D&I champions and sponsors;
  • Create a strategy, a roadmap, and metrics. Involve your exec team and make it part of your OKRs, organisational strategy (involve everyone to keep them accountable!). Learn more.
  • Pilot the program;
  • Evaluate success and adapt;
  • Roll out the program;
  • Evaluate success and adapt. This is an ongoing process. Keep identifying priorities, integrating new initiatives, and being a role model in your industry.

I could probably write a book if I were to explain all of the above (hopefully one day), so for the sake of your time and focus on L&D, I will specifically focus on what you need to take into consideration when you’re designing and rolling out the program.

There are two ways to understand D&I. One of them is intellectual intelligence: I know the benefits of diverse and inclusive organizations, I know how much it helps companies be more innovative and creative and how much money it saves to retain employees and have psychological safety at work. I understand the business case.

On the other hand, there is also a need to understand the importance of D&I on an emotional level: to understand and empathize with people who have been discriminated against, to feel the need to speak up for others who don’t have the same advantages (even if you don’t gain anything out of it and will probably be labeled a trouble-maker).

Those are two completely different levels of understanding the D&I and sometimes it takes a lot of time, if not years to understand both.

Start with why

Why do you want to tackle this topic? Is there a specific case you’d like to address? Is it a prevention mechanism? Or you’ve recently had a difficult conversation related to a case of discrimination? What resources do you have available? How much time do you have available? Do you have a budget? Do you have support from your senior stakeholders? Do you have D&I ambassadors or champions who are familiar with the topic and could act as a support group when you launch an intervention? What does D&I mean to your specific company? What is the most important aspect of D&I dimensions for you at this particular time?

Don’t just jump on a bandwagon! I am going to say something very controversial now: Seems that everyone just had an epiphany moment after the murder of George Floyd and decided that D&I is extremely important for their organisation. It might sound very harsh and some might not agree, but the murder of a black man should not be a reason for your organisation to change a strategy. Listen up! It is amazing that you care, but there should be other reasons why your organisation wants to embrace inclusion, and those reasons should not be as tragic and horrifying as the murder of a person, otherwise, it is just a show-off, a box-ticking exercise that has no long-term benefits.

On the other hand, set a limit of how much time you spend investigating and take action. You need to find a balance and not spend too much time collecting thoughts and ideas and listening to everyone as it will take too much time and you can never keep everyone happy anyway. There is a diversity of opinions even when you talk about diversity :). Just go ahead and start working with what you have, making things happen even when there is no perfect consensus among stakeholders. Ideally, your organisation needs to find intrinsic reasons why it is taking this stand. Perhaps, it could be one of the reasons below or a combination of those.

  • You want to raise awareness on the topic (why?);
  • You want to show your employees that you care about the topic as a company (Why? Perhaps you were pushed into it or employees asked you about it). It could also be for employer branding, just be honest with yourself!
  • You want to change behaviour in employees and eventually become a more diverse and inclusive organisation long-term. It could either be ‘because it is the right thing to do’ or a good business case.

Assess your readiness

It might sound illogical, but I sometimes advise my clients against D&I initiatives. Why? Because some organisations are not ready. It is just like coaching. You need to assess the readiness of your organisations, because the sensitivity of the topic is currently over the moon. If you don’t do it right, you could divide and polarize your organisation.

Let me tell you about one of my former clients. They were so inspired by BLM, had good intentions to drive the D&I conversation forward, and just wanted to do something related to D&I. Just because. After assessing the organisation and learning about its culture, attitudes and checking its ‘temperature’, I realised that the organisation is not ready for some heavy lifting due to the lack of awareness and familiarity with the topic among most of the employees. I suggested having a simple educational Lunch and Learn where we go into the basics of D&I, asking difficult questions and taking a very informal, light approach, slowly diving into the topic, then checking their impressions and feedback before moving further.

Unfortunately, the company decided otherwise: they wanted to go ‘all-in’ and hold a 4hr anti-racism workshop, and I was not the one who could satisfy their high expectations.

From what I’ve learned later, they ended up hiring someone, held a mandatory workshop, and received an absolutely horrifying response; several employees quit, others started a court case because they felt alienated after the workshop (they were BIPOC) and the rest were divided into two opposing views. The workshop was a dramatic mess, with the facilitator being challenged every minute and employees bickering with each other. It was ugly, difficult, and tragic for everyone: the company, the expert, and employees.

What could’ve been done differently? First of all, be realistic in what you can and cannot achieve at the end of the session. Unfortunately, many still expect a change of behaviour after a 4 hr workshop (one company once complained to me after an unconscious bias training that they still have biases and the training did not help them get rid of them completely. Of course, it wouldn’t. Unconscious bias training is the start of the process, not the end of it). If you want to start a conversation, you need to ask yourself why. What do you want to change after the session? What kind of conversations would you want to happen after the training?

As you can see from above, the intentions of most D&I interventions are good. People and organisations genuinely care about D&I and seek additional help. However, real outcomes also require real work, time, energy, and resources dedicated to it. It’s change management!

Quick dos and don’ts when creating a D&I a learning journey


  • Never, never, never make your D&i interventions mandatory
  • Please don’t ask underrepresented groups to educate others and share their personal stories
  • Don’t exclude the majority group from the conversation
  • Don’t be upset if your learning event was rated low and did not meet expectations as you have anticipated. Okay, this is very important. When it comes to D&I, sometimes it’s best not to ask for feedback, at least straight after the learning session. Most people get incredibly uncomfortable when talking about ‘D&I (especially when it comes to privilege, biases, and microaggressions). And most people don’t like to be uncomfortable, especially when their achievements and successes are questioned and their belief about the world is challenged. As a result, many would automatically rate the training as ‘absurd’ or ‘a waste of time’. As an experienced D&I practitioner I know that those comments mean nothing when it comes to measuring the success of the intervention. The real magic happens, two or three months later when suddenly, your participants are faced with the challenging situation you have discussed months prior, and there comes the epiphany moment when they see their own biases or a clear case of discrimination they would not have noticed earlier. You need to measure the behaviour change, not happy sheets, that very often are not so ‘happy’ after the D&I event as the topic is heavy and triggers a lot of (negative) emotions.
  • Don’t use the US context in your European programs. I will explain why below.


  • Create a strong campaign that ‘sells’ the program right & triggers the right emotions and curiosity especially in those that need to adapt their behaviour
  • Align D&I with Company Values
  • Make sure your D&I champions and influencers are vocal and are actively spreading the word about the program
  • Start with your leaders
  • Ensure that you use a variety of learning formats and not just a one-off D&I workshop
  • Ensure that you have space for people to reflect and discuss the topic with peers afterward
  • Ensure that there is a channel to ask uncomfortable questions in an anonymised way that protects identity both during and after the learning journey
  • Be prepared that after the learning event, some employees might feel withdrawn and uncomfortable. It is absolutely normal, everyone deals with the topic in their own way. Usually, it takes people some time to normalise the conversation.
  • Make sure people feel uncomfortable. Cruel, right? But you can only truly understand D&I when you leave your comfort zone.
  • Do use local examples and references. Since most of the work on D&I comes from the US and UK, it is difficult to find materials that are related to Germany or the Netherlands. I usually localize my workshops depending on the country of the organisation to ensure more relevance and hence more ‘aha moments’
  • Space learning over time and use the nudging theory if you want to achieve behaviour change and not just awareness.
  • If faced with pushback, avoid the terms like diversity, inclusion, privilege, etc. Speak the language of those who need to be triggered: with senior leaders you talk numbers and bottom line, with other ‘non-believers’ I usually talk ‘how to use our differences to reach competitive advantage’ or whatever language drives them
  • Keep going no matter how difficult it is – you are doing an AMAZING job and making a big difference not only in your organisation but in the lives of many people!!

An example of a successful D&I intervention:

A couple of months ago, I organized 5 x 1hr training sessions (lunch-and-learn style) on the topic of inclusive leadership, communication, unconscious bias, and privilege for 10 exec leaders in a top tech German-based global company.

We strategically split the sessions into several smaller ones to ensure that there is time for some self-reflection, observation, and independent research and study supported by additional materials. In addition to that, each participant could book a 1-1 session with a facilitator to dive deeper into the topic. They were also allocated a ‘buddy’ with whom they could discuss the topic between the sessions.

This worked like magic. Instead of a 4hr session on a heavy topic, they’re not familiar with (and very often, reluctant to learn about), the participants were empowered with their own decisions when it comes to learning, supported by discussion, reflection, coaching, and peer-to-peer. They also had become a lot more aware of their privilege, biases, language, and behaviour, which could sometimes come across as toxic.

For six months after the training we’ve had a monthly check-in with the participants: how are you feeling, have you experienced any situations, what tools and practices do you use now to mitigate your biases/call out microaggressions and be a more inclusive leader?

On top of all, they had bi-weekly check-ins with their accountability buddies who were also part of the learning journey. The leaders took a stand and created personal KPIs and action points, and changed processes in hiring practices, performance review, and succession planning. 6 months after the intervention, the company reported a boost in diverse hiring by the recruiters and hiring managers, the evaluation of managers by employees has skyrocketed, there was a boost in team spirit which eventually led to higher team performance rates and ideas generated.

We not only worked together to create awareness and positive change in behaviours to help those leaders become better role models but also tackled processes that embedded exclusion and biases. Very often, it is very difficult to change behaviour – that’s why we need to work on processes instead. For example, as late as 1970, the top five orchestras in the U.S. had fewer than 5% women. The US Symphonic Orchestra wanted to eliminate gender bias and came up with a very simple solution to tackle it which resulted in a 30% increase in female musicians being hired. Find out how here.

So you might be sitting here and wondering: why on earth would you put so much effort into it? When I roll out leadership training, I just roll them out without all these unnecessary diagnostic, needs assessment, and roadmap development. It is too much hassle.

I hear you. And I understand the frustration. However, there is one difference between rolling out a leadership program and a D&I program. If your leadership program fails, it will just fail, you reiterate and launch another one six months later. With D&I, things are a little… complex. People are generally so emotionally involved with D&I that it makes it difficult to get a second chance – especially if there are employees who would really benefit from it.

If you don’t properly assess the needs or design the program that really addresses both the level of readiness, understanding of D&I, and the need – you are taking a big risk which could long term result in some unfortunate backlash. On a positive note, you can always have a quick and easy keynote or a lunch and learn session, there is nothing wrong with that, it’s a wonderful initiative. Just remember your why and your expectations and don’t expect an immediate behaviour change.

D&I is change management.

Focus on people, but be aware that change is a slow process, especially when it comes to behaviour change. But even if you train your people to learn or unlearn certain behaviours, you need to ensure that you have created the right environment for them to strive and practice.

Sometimes I see D&I as going to a doctor: you don’t come to the GP telling them that you had a kidney stone and need antibiotics. And even if you’re right, the doctor is likely to examine you, look at your health history, prescribe some medicines and find the best way to treat your body in a personalised way, not a one-size-fits-all approach. Just like in medicine, we at D&I don’t want to treat your symptoms but the root cause of the problem. Sure, I can give you a painkiller, but will it actually help your kidney?

Do you want more data-crunching regarding D&I in Europe? Check out these comprehensive resources and report:

Do you need initial or comprehensive support on your D&I progress? Check out my website or reach out directly on LinkedIn. I also have a bunch of webinars on YouTube created together with some of the most amazing D&I leaders in Europe. Hope it helps!

Olla is Diversity & Inclusion and Intercultural trainer and consultant, Learning & Development professional and entrepreneur. She works with C-level executives, start-ups, scale-ups and established organisations on fostering inclusion and diversity on a strategic level. She is a visiting lecturer at ESMT Business School, one of the leading MBA programs in Europe and a founder of BerLearn, a community for L&D professionals.

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