|Training & Development, Jan
1994 v48 n1 p60(3)
The downside of
diversity. Victor C.
Abstract: Diversity training can be most effective
if the approach taken is one that is realistic, cautious and
long-term-oriented. First, trainers should treat diversity
training as a business issue and not a psychological and
anthropological concern. Trainers should keep in mind that
diversity is pursued in organizations solely for the purpose
of removing barriers to production and creativity with the
ultimate aim of increasing profits. Another rule is to conduct
diversity training with utmost cautiousness. This will help
them address the confusion, disorder, approval, trepidation,
reverence, bewilderment and hostility that may all serve to
challenge diversity training. Lastly, trainers should set only
those objectives that are specific and measurable, and those
goals that are long-term. Attitudes can be modified more
easily if the change happens over time as compared to a sudden
Full Text: COPYRIGHT American Society for Training
and Development Inc. 1994
DIVERSITY TRAINING CAN SPARK NEW WAYS OF THINKING AND
WORKING. IT CAN ALSO CAUSE CONFUSION, DISORDER, AND HOSTILITY.
THE KEY TO MAKING IT WORK IS A CAUTIOUS, REALISTIC APPROACH
THAT AIMS FOR LONG-TERM RESULTS.
Could something as beneficial and appealing as diversity
awareness also have a dubious and nonaffirming influence?
Efforts to manage and value diversity are near the top of all
politically correct agendas. Pundits support them; magazines
and trade journals accept, sanction, and recommend them.
Everyone, it seems, embraces diversity training.
And why not? Managing diversity is a desirable and
profitable aim. If we don't do it, we are avoiding very
obvious shifts in the population and hence, the workforce. If
we ignore demographic realities, the complex systems that make
up the organization will certainly suffer. Either tangibly or
intangibly, they will weaken and begin to decline.
But diversity, as an agenda
topic and lesson plan, is like a new drug. Its capabilities
and benefits are highly touted, but its inescapable side
effects are hidden in the small print of a cumbersome text--if
they are known at all. Most of them can be avoided. Most of
them will be avoided--when more diversity trainers themselves
develop a little more sensitivity and awareness.
How to do diversity
Beginning a program of diversity training is not really
that difficult a task. A rapidly growing industry of
consultants brings us expertise in the field, and diversity
has become a "hot" topic in our ever-present desire to probe
the psyche of the corporate culture. Thanks to both of those
developments, plenty of books are available to provide a solid
background for understanding diversity. In addition, major
business periodicals and trade journals are replete with
advice. And training videos, workbooks, and seminars are
plentiful. A human resource department that plans to implement
diversity training can do so either by calling a consultant,
by hiring an internal HR person with diversity-training
experience, or by contracting for train-the-trainer
instruction in diversity management and awareness.
No matter which route a company chooses, the general
approach to a corporate diversity program is practically
universal. The core of most diversity efforts revolves around
a few solid guidelines.
First and foremost, top management expresses a commitment
to diversity. It may take the form of a "white paper"
(espousing not only the profit incentive for managing
diversity, but also the virtuous and desirable behavior
inherent in valuing diversity). Top-management commitment can
manifest itself in a high degree of visibility at
awareness-training sessions. Or it could show up as a mandate
from the top--cascaded down through the ranks--that says the
commitment is necessary, that it must be genuine, and that
management must follow up on it. Next, if you haven't taken a
hard look at the company culture lately, management should
determine the extent and kind of diversity training that is
needed. You can do this by conducting surveys or using focus
Top managers tend to be wary of employee surveys and focus
groups; by asking about existing problems, management implies
that it intends to correct them. An old adage says that a good
trial lawyer never asks a hostile witness a question that he
or she doesn't already know the answer to. In the same vein,
management is often reluctant to venture into unexplored
territory. But if you're serious about diversity training, it
is fundamentally necessary to perform some kind of formal
"audit" of your culture.
The next step is too often the first step in many
companies--bringing in an expert to conduct "sensitivity" or
"awareness" training. This is where things start to get
interesting. It is also the point at which many employees
unfortunately develop an entirely different concept regarding
diversity training than management intended.
The reason is simple: Management's concern regarding
diversity has its roots in good business and profits. But
rather than handling diversity as a business issue and
treating it accordingly, the training inadvertently treats it
as a "soft" issue--a "do-good" HR imperative that comes across
as a politically correct version of the Golden Rule. Of
course, there is nothing wrong with the Golden Rule, but most
managers don't need classes on it at work (really).
business standpoint, managing diversity has a simple purpose.
It is about eliminating the subtle and not-so-subtle
roadblocks to participation and creativity that can exist if a
diverse workforce is hampered by a culture bound to the
ethics, practices, and customs of the monocultural (usually
white and male) hierarchy that was present at its inception.
At least, that is what diversity programs are supposed to be
We often turn diversity training into a curious mix of
psychology and anthropology that looks, feels, and sounds like
a freshman college class. We preach the evils of stereotyping,
while exalting the value of the growing ethnicity and other
types of diversity within the workforce.
Those are worthwhile topics, but you can't talk about them
without encroaching, however cautiously, on issues that
essentially deal with personality: people's thoughts,
feelings, and behaviors. Those are sensitive and potentially
touchy issues, and we should ask ourselves under what
circumstances--and under what guidance--they belong in a
Diversity efforts often have as their tacit objective the
modification of behavior. But no matter how noble our
intentions may be, we should not and cannot attempt to alter
or eradicate deeply imbedded perceptions in the space of a
two-day session. Because diversity training usually involves
some sort ofparticipatory activity by class members, the
process can begin to resemble group therapy. It should not.
Some cautionary observations
I have attended--and presented--introductory
diversity-awareness sessions in which the class members were
exceedingly diverse. And I have attended sessions that
consisted predominantly of white, male middle managers. From
my own observations, here are a few generalizations about
diversity-awareness training. Keep them in mind as you begin
to traverse the "winding roads ahead" in your
Here are the conditions that diversity trainers should
watch out for.
"I'm OK.... Why do you think I'm not?"
Diversity training is likely to face a mixed bag of
confusion, disorder, approval, reverence, bewilderment, and
You might believe that you have a sympathetic
audience--especially if it's made up of senior staff members
who will be responsible for inculcating diversity awareness
down through the hierarchy. But every person who is listening
will filter your guidance and instruction through his or her
own values and experiences. In turn, perhaps unconsciously,
your audience will be rejecting, accepting, or ignoring each
phase of the training.
Just knowing that this subjective bias is occurring should
rightfully deter you from expecting dramatic results from your
first few sessions. Diversity training is a long-term process,
not a quick fix.
"I'm open; you're closed." It's a generalization, of
course, but women tend to feel more comfortable than men do
about dealing with personal issues. That fact has considerable
significance in diversity training.
In many of my classes, many of the women participants bring
more to the table than the men, articulate it better, and are
willing to discuss the delicate issues that more of the men
shy away from. As the women speak, the men stare into their
coffee cups, confounded by such frankness. As the trainer, you
feel that you are watching as the gender gap grows wider and
your hopes for a bridge begin to sink.
The dormant gang syndrome. Many middle managers are
reluctant to speak up around their peers. Their inherent
competitiveness puts up barriers and disallows candor, perhaps
because they are afraid of "giving something away" or
appearing to come down on the wrong side of an issue. Most
middle managers have made a considerable investment,
emotionally and otherwise, to arrive at their currentpoints in
their careers. Being too forthright and direct in the wrong
crowd is a trait they abandoned long ago.
The trepidation topic. Few people are comfortable
discussing sexual orientation as a diversity issue in the same
way that they might discuss ethnicity, age, and gender. Many
people see sexual orientation as more than a demographic
reality--they see it as an issue of morality, behavior, and
lifestyle. Everyone in your session will already have an
opinion about this; you don't have time to change it in a day
or two. You couldn't, anyway.
doesn't mean you should avoid sexual orientation as a facet of
cultural diversity. It is an important facet. But don't allow
a session to deteriorate into a forum for personal opinions
and judgments. Instead, discuss the obvious presence of gay
men, lesbians, and bisexuals in today's society and the
workplace. Deal with the issue openly from that standpoint.
I have seen anger flare and tears shed over gender and
minority issues, but this one can cause dead silence, anxious
humor, and violent opposition. Recent news broadcasts have
even shown our congressional representatives yelling at each
other over this issue. Tread lightly.
The overload factor. Workforce diversity encompasses many
issues: gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, religious
affiliation, minority status, social status, and physical and
mental conditions. It is not likely that you need to discuss
all of those issues in each meeting.
Consider again the advantages of focus groups and surveys.
All of the facets of diversity are important, but you should
deal first with the ones that are issues in your organization.
The cocktail party paradigm. Cultural diversity issues are
all over the news. Consider religious affiliations and
beliefs; gay men and lesbians in the military; U.S. President
Bill Clinton's cabinet; the portrayal of native Americans in
the movies; and the vocal denunciation, in some circles, of
things white and male. The list is endless.
Unless you intend for your diversity sessions to be a salon
for discussing ("cussing" is more like it) politics, religion,
and the proper rearing of children, stay away from current
Seeking harmony and rapport
How then, can diversity training be handled effectively?
Good trainers treat it like any other business objective. They
set specific, measurable objectives and goals that are for the
long term, rather than the short term. They stay out of the
social-psychology business--unless they are trained in that
area--but they understand that they are dancing around the
periphery of it.
There are two ways to alter a culture: by revolution, or by
a deliberate, gradual, and cautious program designed to shift
Revolutions are painful, and people inevitably get hurt in
them. (If your firm is like many others, you've probably
already been through several in recent years.) That leaves us
with the second alternative--the one designed to shift
attitudes over a period of time. When managed effectively,
diversity is a long-term project. Period.
Compliance implies a mandate. And conformity is exactly the
opposite of what diversity is all about. Instead, your
objective should be a culture that breeds harmony and rapport,
which in turn provide creativity, effective decision making,
and better teamwork. Seeing cultural diversity as the
emotional and fervent social issue that it is will help you
understand its complexities and potential pitfalls. And always
remember that this is new, unexplored territory for most of
Better yet, keep in mind the following Peanuts cartoon:
The indomitable Lucy approaches her brother, Linus--who is
minding his own business and watching TV. She brings him a
piece of paper on which she has written all of his faults. To
his dismay, she tells him that he should study his faults and
work on eliminating them, making himself a better person. As
Lucy walks away, Linus shouts, "Faults?! Faults?! These aren't
faults! These are character traits!"
Victor Thomas is a freelance writer based in Houston,