Employee Engagement & Retention

How Virtual Reality is Revolutionizing DE&I Training

By Aishwarya Jagani

Last updated: Feb 15, 2023

    Table of contents

Why traditional DE&I training can fall short — and how VR can help companies.

Photo by Ramon Costa/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.
Photo by Ramon Costa/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives are a growing priority for businesses across the world and especially in the U.S. But despite fair intentions, too many organizations are failing on the DE&I front, either focusing narrowly on inefficient training and sensitization programs, or limiting their efforts to online, public displays of support for marginalized communities.

Last year, Disney drew widespread criticism when the company tweeted in support of Pride month, and in the same week that it was hit by a sexual-orientation discrimination lawsuit. In another diversity marketing fail, Burger King came under fire for tweeting “women belong in the kitchen” on International Women’s Day. The tweet, which was followed by another tweet saying “if they want to, of course,” and was an attempt to announce the company’s new scholarship program to help women get a degree in culinary arts, was widely misunderstood and criticized.

Even companies that are going a step beyond hollow marketing campaigns by making efforts to sensitize employees and build more inclusive workplaces, find their training dollars wasted, as traditional sensitization and DE&I training programs fail to make a significant change in personal bias and perception.

“Companies are spending $8 billion annually on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) training. However, traditional training methods often do more harm than good, putting participants on guard and solidifying biases rather than dismantling them,” Olivia Tan, technologist and co-founder of fax service provider CocoFax, told The Org.

Tan’s organization uses a role-playing VR diversity training program to teach employees about “inclusive leadership, psychological safety, microaggressions and bias.”

Why traditional DE&I training can fall short

Technologists and DE&I experts suggest that traditional training and sensitization programs may not be enough and only create superficial change. A 2016 study by the Harvard Business Review revealed that participants in role-play scenarios “are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, but they often forget the lessons learned within a matter of days.”

Traditional role-play could also create uncomfortable situations where participants are afraid to say the wrong thing and appear racist, sexist or biased to their peers.

“Traditional DE&I training programs have great intentions, but there is always a barrier because people don't actually understand what it is like to be on the other side of discrimination,” said Cortney Harding, who runs Friends With Holograms, a VR agency that has produced award-winning VR soft skills training with a focus on DE&I for companies like Accenture, PWC, Walmart, Lowe's and DDI.

Harding’s organization has built training simulations on topics like child welfare, workplace inclusion, racial bias and mental health for Fortune 100 companies and major consultancies.

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“Well-meaning people can watch all the films and read all the books, but until you experience something, it is just abstract,” she added.

Studies have shown that VR programs are up to four times more effective and lead to greater retention than traditional training sessions involving role play.

Why is VR training so effective?

54 years ago, on April 5, 1968, Jane Elliot, a schoolteacher from Riceville, Iowa conclusively proved the impact of immersive experiences on racial bias.

Her historic experiment, Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes, involved segregating her third-grade class into brown-eyed and blue-eyed groups and treating them differently based on their eye color.

Each student was allowed to experience marginalization firsthand, and came away with a deep understanding of the psychological effects of racial marginalization.

Elliot’s experiment showed that the most effective way understanding bias and discrimination is to experience it yourself. Modern-day VR training programs build on this fact, allowing for immersive experiences that let participants put themselves in the shoes of marginalized coworkers.

“The immersive experience sets VR apart,” said Kurt Merriweather, VP of Products and Innovation at The Diversity Movement.

“What [learners] need is a safe place to practice and this is where VR is well-suited to create simulations that feel like real-life situations. There is a lot of potential with VR because it brings in an emotional perspective, not just sitting through a traditional class. You can know what it’s like to be in someone else’s skin and experience a microaggression or see how people act in a realistic way,” he added.

A 2020 research paper suggests that VR experiences induce similar levels of empathy and understanding as embodied experiences, suggesting that experiencing discimination within a VR program is very similar to experiencing it in real life, and creates similar levels of empathy. Research by PwC indicated that VR learners can be trained up to four times faster than traditional learners, and are 275% more confident in applying what they have learnt.

The VR firms ushering in a new era for DE&I

For company leaders who think their organizations would benefit from VR training, there are a vast number of VR firms offering immersive diversity training programs.

Award-winning virtual and augmented reality developer Moth + Flame is creating immersive, one-on-one VR experiences to provide diversity and inclusion training to businesses and organizations, including the National Urban League, one of the oldest civil rights groups in the United States, and the U.S. Air Force.

“We use VR simulations as a safe space to help employees develop strategies and composure when engaging in what have been traditionally uncomfortable conversations,” said founder Kevin Cornish.

“Our VR learning model incorporates natural language processing, photorealism, and true-to-life environments with real actors, not avatars, to take that immersive learning experience to the highest level available in the market. VR is extremely powerful when you’re in it, and the levels of engagement are unparalleled when compared to just watching a video or listening to someone talk,” he added.

Another New York-based startup, Praxis Labs, has built a similar immersive VR program, called Pivotal Experiences, to train employees on diversity and inclusion. Organizations like Google, Amazon and Target are already using Praxis Labs’ platform for training. Another VR diversity program, Perspectives, was created by Myra LalDin, a woman of color who felt “othered” growing up in multiple countries and vowed to create a solution.

Tan, whose organization uses LalDin’s VR platform, Perspectives, told The Org, “[As part of our diversity training], we put you in the shoes of Sue, the protagonist in our gender-bias scenario, and let you experience her corporate world. You make decisions, control her hands, and choose her words.”

“Sue is based on research and anecdotal bias. These immersive experiences help users understand how microaggressions affect work life,” she added.

Harding concludes that VR is the way forward, and it produces better results than traditional training. But she also cautions against doing it wrong, adding that the most important core principles are to ‘use real people (actors), not avatars, to create genuine emotional connection; mimic real life interactions whenever possible (so use voice instead of having a user click buttons); and build for your company culture when possible (so avoid generic off the shelf products).”

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