A recent post that popped up in my LinkedIn feed described the writer’s recent experience with a company policy: The writer had asked for bereavement leave to attend the funeral of a close relative, their uncle, only to be told that the company’s policy covered “immediate family” only—defined as parents, spouse, siblings, and offspring. This person’s definition of immediate family extended to aunts, uncles, cousins, and more; in their culture, members of what some consider “extended family” live together and are part of one another’s daily lives.

The policy, common among American organizations, was written with cultural assumptions that the policymakers were probably not aware of—and that, until now, had never been challenged. The post has a happy ending; the writer challenged the policy, got their leave approved, and reported that the company was reconsidering the policy.

Shifting your perspective

The bereavement leave policy is only one example of how the lack of an inclusive mindset among company leaders impacts workers in ways that leaders and policymakers might not imagine. Making an exception for this employee put a Band-Aid on the problem, but did not address it—any more than going through old training content and replacing images of white people with more diverse stock photos would fix a company’s lack of diversity or inclusivity.

A response that treats inclusivity as an initiative or part of a “diversity program” won’t work either; sending people to a one-day workshop or training and coming up with checklists or quotas doesn’t change behavior in meaningful ways.

Creating an organization that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive requires that everyone, from leaders on down, shift their perspective. That includes, and might even begin with, learning and development.

L&D teams, and their leaders in particular, can move the needle by ensuring that inclusive content is a default rather than a box to check off on a list or an add-on. Similar to building content that is accessible and user-centered content by default, inclusivity needs to be baked in from the moment a training aid, tool, or course is conceived.

Challenge cultural assumptions

Inclusivity is an essential element of company culture. Consider where your organization lands on questions of inclusivity: Can employees take bereavement leave for a family member who’s not on an narrowly drawn list of “close relatives”? Does your company handbook assume that all employees and their families fit into traditional gender binaries? Do employees get paid days off for Christian holidays like Good Friday—but not for Yom Kippur or Eid al-Fitr? The answers to these questions provide insight into cultural assumptions and biases that might be built into your company’s culture.

Learning leaders, as policymakers in a team that touches everyone in the organization, can do a lot to shape and even shift organizational culture around these issues. While a learning leader might not be able to change paid leave policies, they can push back against some assumptions or implicit biases by asking questions: When creating or updating onboarding training, for example, ask what the process is for employees to request leave for their religious holidays. Or, ask how an employee can register their same-sex partner or trans child for appropriate health benefits.

There isn’t a policy for that? Hmmm … As the LinkedIn example shows, sometimes asking the right questions of the right people can raise awareness and trigger a conversation that, ultimately, leads to changes that increase equity. That’s a small but significant step.

Learning leadership and L&D teams can have a far greater impact on materials they create, of course, by ensuring that all learners “see themselves” in the content as well as by providing materials that meet the needs of a diverse population.

Understand cultural differences in how people learn

Learners from different cultures prioritize different approaches to learning—fact-based versus conceptual and relationship-based or seeking a single correct answer versus searching for multiple solutions, according to Culturally Inclusive Instructional Design. When working toward an inclusive culture, consider designing activities and assessments specifically to accommodate key differences in:

  • What motivates learners to learn
  • How learners expect learning to be structured
  • Attitudes toward and tolerance of failure as part of the learning process
  • Comfort with learning approaches that are individually focused, collaborative, or competitive
  • Familiarity with and openness to active learning, such as interactive exercises that let learners apply information, as well as more passive consumption of or exposure to information

In leading a design team, it’s important to raise awareness of these differences and intentionally design and create materials that include a variety of approaches and perspectives.

This inclusive mindset may well result in the creation of a wider variety of resources that don’t default to training—such as job aids and quick-reference tools—and that actually meet learners’ needs more effectively than a training-focused approach.

Ensure that all content is broadly inclusive

Cultural assumptions and defaults create barriers in learning content as well as in company policies: While learners might be able to access and navigate the content, their understanding is hindered by cultural references or language they don’t understand. Content may describe foreign situations, characters, and behaviors that alienate or confuse learners. This is especially true in global organizations.

The lack of inclusivity might be as simple, obvious, and common as using gendered pronouns or portraying leaders as (nearly always) white and male. Even if—especially if—that’s the reality in your organization, presenting different possibilities in your training content can help people envision a more equitable and diverse future.

By enabling everyone to see themselves in company materials, L&D teams are often at the forefront of efforts to help employees at an organization identify and mitigate implicit biases. A starting point is using learner personas, as well as language and images, that reflect a work and learner population diverse in gender, age, and ethnicity.

The next level might be a review for cultural references that learners from diverse regions, cultures, or countries might not understand; sports terms and examples are ubiquitous in U.S.-based media and training, for example. Inclusive content would swap these out for culturally neutral language and images.

And, when preparing courses for a global audience, ensure that your team looks beyond translation to a deeper localization effort. This would include adjusting idiomatic language to an appropriate equivalent in each target language, for example, rather than using straight-up machine translation. It also means adjusting images to account for cultural differences in dress, perhaps, and using examples that would be relatable to each target audience.

Building inclusive language, images, examples, and exercises into all of your materials by default will result in training resources that are more usable and accessible to a diverse learner population.

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