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Training & Development, Jan 1994 v48 n1 p60(3)
The downside of diversity. Victor C. Thomas.

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 change.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT American Society for Training and Development Inc. 1994


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.

[Expanded Picture] 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 groups.

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).

[Expanded Picture] From a 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 about.

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 conference room.

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 workforce-diversity efforts.

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 even hostility.

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.

[Expanded Picture] That 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 events.

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 attitudes.

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 your workforce.

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, Texas.


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 Employee Training - Management
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 Workplace Multiculturalism - Training
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 Training & Development, Jan 1994
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