How can we truly understand lived experience?
By Jo Faragher on 7 September 2022
Empathy is something of a buzzword in diversity and inclusion discussions. Leaders must build greater empathy in order to succeed, we’re told, or empathy for colleagues different to ourselves will help us feel a greater sense of belonging at work. Both of these statements are true, but what is often missing from the discussion around empathy is how we build and nurture it in order to get those outcomes.
An increasing number of organisations are calling on external help to build employees’ understanding of others.
BYP Network, founded with the aim of connecting Black professionals and students and to build role models and career support, runs the Black Experience Course. In two hours, participants will build their understanding of the systemic biases, barriers and microaggressions Black people face at work. The course content is aimed at managers, hiring leads, senior leaders and HR teams so they can get a better idea of how Black employees really experience the workplace, and in turn improve how they attract and retain Black talent.
CEO and founder Kike Oniwinde Agoro points to the statistic that 46% of Black employees in the UK intend to quit their jobs in the first two years or sooner due to discrimination. “Considering this disappointing stat paired with the cost of living crisis and looming recession, there has never been a more pertinent time to discuss issues faced by the Black community,” she says. “We serve to represent Black professionals and ensure that companies are active participants in changing the narrative.” The business benefits of opening up conversations on others’ experience are also clear: a survey by Glassdoor in 2020 found that 76% of job seekers and employees view a diverse workforce to be an important factor in their choice of employer.
The companies that have already taken part in the Black Experience Course have found it impactful. Chelsey Sprong, who works in D&I at Beazley Group, said the content was “incredibly insightful and candid”, and commented on the importance of challenging traditional perceptions with up to date information. “I liked the way the questions and quizzes were phrased to challenge old notions of diversity,” she says. Paul Hollen from science and technology company Danaher felt the course would change the company’s recruitment practices and its strategy for sponsorship. It would also look into ways in which bias may creep into hiring systems and introduce more formal ally programmes.
Another way to immerse employees in others’ experience is through clever use of technology. While this might not replace ‘real’ stories and experiences, it can augment understanding and help training stick. A study by consulting firm PwC found that learners using virtual reality (VR), for example, felt 3.75 times more emotionally connected to the content than classroom learners and 2.3 times more connected than those using e-learning. Three-quarters of learners it surveyed said they had a wake-up call moment during a VR course when they realised they were not as inclusive as they thought.
Katja Schipperheijn, consultant and author of Learning Ecosystems, says these forms of learning will become ever more important as technologies such as artificial intelligence become more widespread in the workplace. Young people who will move into the workforce in years to come are already used to immersive worlds through games like Fortnite and Roblox, she adds, and will have high expectations of being able to collaborate in virtual spaces. “The pandemic really opened this up – we’re already seeing doctors practising on sophisticated holograms before real surgery. Because of the way our brains work, we remember things for much longer if we’ve had an immersive experience,” she explains. “When a student is distracted during learning, their brain stores less information and is therefore less able to remember things.” Since VR isolates from the distractions of the real world, students are more likely to focus on the content and absorb the concepts in a lasting way, she adds.
“[Immersive training] ignites all of your senses so it stays with you,” she adds. She warns, however, that some types of experiential training can overstep a line – experiencing the feeling of being bullied or harassed, for example, could be too much for some employees. It should also be used as an additional form of training alongside other options such as classroom-based and e-learning, ideally giving staff the choice of whether they wish to follow an immersive learning route or not. “Take onboarding – some people will love the immersive route but others love the smell of books; some can’t learn via YouTube and others like the social aspect of training with other people,” she explains. Having clear ideas about what you want the various aspects of training to achieve, rather than investing in technology for technology’s sake, will also drive success.
Social enterprise Corps Security has transposed some of its training modules to a virtual reality platform called Moonhub, including a specific module on diversity and inclusion. This includes an anti-racism module developed by Roisin Wood, who is former CEO of football’s Kick It Out anti-racism campaign. “The principles of this led to the creation of an unconscious and conscious bias-type training which is immersive for the individual using a VR headset, to go through a range of scenarios in a set location and presenting key examples of good and bad practice,” explains Seetan Varsani, Divisional Director for London at Corps Security. “Having interactive testing in an immersive setting puts individuals in a life-like situation they experience to learn from, rather than answering from a tick box exercise,” he adds. “This type of training reaches an audience more universally, bringing a significant inclusion factor from a learning capabilities perspective. Not everyone can articulate themselves in reading or writing at the same level but when you’re engaging your senses by seeing appropriate behaviour, hearing the right phrases and expressions within a scenario, this sticks with an individual far better.”
The nature of the training has helped to boost inclusivity, believes Varsani. “Employees can more easily repeat and model what they’ve seen in the module which helps with recall and breaks down obstacles for those with learning difficulties,” he says. “From an inclusivity perspective, the variety of scenarios and the range of actors involved are actually talking to the individual when they’re wearing the VR goggles. This allows them to feel and experience the situation on a personal level so race, or other protected characteristics, can be engaged with by an inclusive audience.”
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