Training Can Damage Diversity Efforts

April 1, 1993
Caucasians are insensitive and aloof. African-Americans like watermelon. Women shouldn't manage because they're too emotional.

These were some of the stereotypes generated in a diversity workshop held recently at an East Coast government agency. Had the agency used the exercise to create awareness of how personal bias affects working relationships, it might have been worthwhile. Instead, the myths were taken from the workshop, printed on the agency's letterhead and circulated throughout the organization without any explanation of where they came from or what they meant.

"This created a tremendous amount of anger and hostility in the workplace," explains Percy Thomas, president of the National Diversity Institute in Rockville, Maryland, the organization that was called in to clean up the mess. "Complaints from employees drove the EEO folks crazy."

In another case, the managers at a small Midwestern manufacturing company hired diversity consultants to help employees uncover racial tensions in the workplace and learn to deal with them. The consultants split employees into two groups: employees who felt oppressed (minorities) and people who made employees feel oppressed (Caucasian men and women). Employees in the group that felt oppressed shared their resentment and anger toward the Caucasian employees, who listened without responding.

Far from bringing the groups closer together, the exercise outraged the Caucasian workers. In addition, members of the group that felt oppressed left feeling vulnerable. This drove a wedge between employees, which made working relationships at the company worse than ever. "The exercise didn't work for either group," says Frances Kendall, who is a diversity consultant in Albany, California, and who stepped in to correct the problem.

Unfortunately, these aren't isolated incidents. Increasing awareness of how our melting-pot society affects business has increased the demand for diversity trainers. In response, many inexperienced people are hanging out diversity-training shingles. The result? Ineffective training that often creates more problems than it solves.

The ASTD Buyer's Guide and Consultants Directory, published by the American Society for Training and Development, in Alexandria, Virginia, provides an indication of how much the field has grown. In 1992, the guide listed 34 consultants under the category of work force diversity, 35 under diverse work force management and 16 under multicultural training. Two years ago, there were just 15 consultants listed under all these categories combined.

Herb Wong, who is a diversity consultant in Danville, California, provides a more vivid example of how the field has grown. "After the Los Angeles civil unrest, hundreds of resumes and proposals from diversity trainers inundated the Los Angeles Police Department weekly," he says.

Human resources professionals, such as Rita Craig of Florida Power and Light in Miami, tell similar stories. "The number of brochures I get from so-called experts in the diversity field is frightening," she says. "This is a sensitive topic and a new field. If the trainers aren't qualified, they can damage an organization," she adds.

Darlene Siedschlaw, director of EEO and affirmative-action compliance at U S WEST in Denver, adds, "The field is burgeoning, and trainers are now a dime a dozen." The problem is that training isn't something you just get into. Issues of prejudices are emotionally volatile, and companies need to have skilled facilitators. "Trainers have to uncover their own prejudice before they can work on the prejudices of others," says Siedschlaw.

Hanging out a shingle, in other words, does not a diversity trainer make.

Ineffective training can hamper an organization's diversity efforts.
Unqualified trainers aren't the only cause of the diversity horror stories. After all, the growing number of trainers is simply evidence of supply and demand at work. More trainers are entering the field because U.S. employers increasingly want to provide that training. Diversity represents one of the few areas of training that's growing during this time of shrinking training budgets.

A case in point: A 1991 survey conducted by New York City-based Towers Perrin, in which 75% of the companies reported that they plan to or currently have diversity-training programs in place. Just a year earlier, only 47% of the organizations surveyed expressed an interest in diversity.

For many employers, these programs are well-organized, thoughtful responses to changing work-force demographics and business needs. For others, the training may be nothing more than an impulse to participate in the latest corporate fad, suggests Sybil Evans, East Coast assistant editor of Cultural Diversity at Work.

"Diversity training is the flavor of the month," says Evans. These companies sandwich diversity between other contemporary workplace programs, such as team-building and quality improvement, without giving any thought to the importance of developing a comprehensive workplace diversity policy. On its own, training usually will fail unless there are other strategies to support it. So who's to blame when training fails? "Everybody," says Evans. The consultants and employers are all responsible.

Ineffective training can hamper or set back an organization's efforts to support diversity and use it as a business advantage. For example, bad training can raise the expectations of the women and minorities in an organization while increasing the fear and resistance among Caucasian males. "You end up with radically different expectations. This increases the minorities' anger and frustration and increases the white males' isolation and exclusionary behavior," says David Tulin of Tulin and Associates, a diversity-consulting firm in New York City. He says that the reverse can be true. "This happens when white males feel good about a workshop, and minorities leave saying, 'This is bullshit. It didn't deal with our core issues,' " says Tulin.

Bad training also can give managers the wrong clues about what to do in a given situation, such as to stop hiring Caucasian males. The pain that comes from prejudice also can intimidate employers and make them reluctant ever to deal with diversity again. On the surface, training may give the impression that a company has dealt with diversity, when in reality, the glass ceiling and other race and gender issues may remain.

Lewis Griggs, of the San Francisco-based diversity-consulting firm Griggs Productions, adds that many diversity consultants look at the value of diversity but anesthetize people to what these differences mean in the workplace. "Most of the time, differences are irrelevant," he says, "but 10% of the time, there are differences that are real and relevant, and can impact job performance. I may not be the best choice to be an Avon salesperson in Harlem, for example. We shouldn't be afraid to look at how differences impact the workplace."

How to identify ineffective diversity training.
Ineffective training can take many forms. According to Elsie Cross of Elsie Cross and Associates, a diversity-consulting firm in Philadelphia, there's training that attempts to fix the victim, "as though there were something wrong with women or people of color. This training focuses on getting these individuals to assimilate into the corporate culture," she says.

Using this approach, trainers outline the successful traits found in a company's culture and then try to get minorities to adopt those traits, rather than changing the traits themselves. "The problem," explains Cross, "is that you can't create a man out of a woman or a white person out of a black person. Even if you do get them fixed, nothing in the environment has changed to ensure that the company treats these individuals equally."

Another problem occurs when trainers try to force politically correct language onto workshop participants. One example is a jackhammer operator at a utility company, who says, "Some of the girls I work with... " and the trainer interrupts him by saying, "You mean some of the women you work with."

"We need to talk about the difference between 'girls' and 'women,'" explains Tulin, "but we must empower people to start where they're comfortable before trying to move them in another direction. Interrupting people to correct their language prevents the real issues from reaching the table."

A company that conducts training before it understands the issues facing employees also will fail. One recent case involved a consultant to a city agency in the San Francisco Bay Area that had a large gay and lesbian population. Because he had neglected to learn about the employee makeup, his training program focused on racial issues (which weren't a problem at this company) and completely ignored homophobia (which was a problem). Gay employees left the training feeling as if management didn't consider their issues to be important.

Training also is likely to be ineffective when it focuses on confronting stereotypes without giving any emphasis to developing the skills needed to bring awareness of these stereotypes back to the workplace.

"This is where you get folks together and ask them to say the first things that come to their minds about African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, women managers, and so on," says Tulin. "They put all this stuff on the table—that they're lazy, menopausal or sleep their way to the top. Then participants attempt to process this information. I consider this kind of activity to be dangerous because it causes target groups to hear additional stereotypes about themselves, which may cause distrust. In addition, it sets up other people—including white males—to say things that later can be used as ammunition against them."

This kind of training can scare managers away from doing any more work in diversity. "This happened to an organization in the East. My understanding is that the company had to hire an industrial psychologist to deal with some of the anger and hostility that had been generated," he says.

Although awareness of stereotypes and prejudice is a necessary part of diversity work, the awareness must pertain to business needs. "Raising awareness is a crucial first step," says Kendall, "but you have to tell people how to apply that awareness to their jobs. Don't put them through these painful exercises and then send them back to the workplace without teaching them the skills they need to have if they're going to be able to use what they've learned. It's like sending in a loose cannon."

After the Navy's Tailhook Convention in Las Vegas, during which male officers sexually harassed many female officers, a government agency called in consultants to make them more aware of sexual harassment in the workplace. According to Kendall, the employees participated in an exercise, during which female employees formed a gauntlet. Their male colleagues walked through—while the women touched and jeered at them. It was a good exercise for raising awareness, but there wasn't enough processing of that information. "It created a lot of pain in the minds of the managers. Pain and diversity training now are linked. It has scared them away from wanting to do any more diversity work," says Kendall.

Cross adds, "You can't do a workshop and just end there." You have to help them develop the skills needed to change behavior. Besides, you can't work on individual awareness unless you have organizational awareness. You have to create the infrastructure in the organization to support the change that's taking place."

New York City-based Manufacturers Hanover Trust, now known as Chemical Bank, didn't do this. In April 1991, managers attended a two-day diversity-awareness program in one division of the company. The company didn't supplement or reinforce the training with other programs, says Jeri Moses, training manager. The program ended, nothing changed, and the tensions that existed before the workshop remained. "We dropped the ball. My advice to other companies that are considering a diversity-training program is to follow through and commit to the effort," she says.

Create an environment that supports diversity training.
Diversity training's potential problems might make HR professionals hesitant to pursue a training program. Well-thought-out diversity training does work, as such companies as Avon Products Inc., The Prudential and Hewlett-Packard Co. can confirm (see "Successful Companies Realize that Diversity Is a Long-term Process, Not a Program"). Companies that have been successful in their efforts know that training is only one part of the diversity equation—they also need an environment that supports diversity in ways that reach beyond the classroom.

To begin with, a diversity effort must have commitment and direction from the top. "If you're doing it to appease the masses, you're doing it for the wrong reasons," says Lennox E. Joseph, executive director and CEO of National Training Laboratories in Alexandria, Virginia. The upper levels of an organization must understand the value of a diverse work force, direct the strategies to support diversity and model the appropriate behaviors. The CEO of a utility company, for example, shouldn't refer to female employees as girls even if the jackhammer operators do.

"Some training sets up people to say things that later can be used as ammunition against them."
David Tulin,
Tulin Diversiteam Associates

On the other hand, although it's necessary for executives to direct the initiative, it's just as important that line managers' ownership of the project be obtained. The HR department can manage the effort, but support from other departments is crucial for success.

Another important point is that employers shouldn't enter into a diversity program without having an idea of what they want to accomplish. "Connect training to specific business outcomes and results," suggests Evans, whether it's to enhance team relationships, increase productivity, cut down on absenteeism or reduce turnover.

Ortho Pharmaceuticals in Newark, New Jersey, for example, began its diversity program eight years ago. Its goal was to slow the steady stream of women and people of color who were leaving the company. Within two years, the attrition rate had slowed. Affirmative action and sexual harassment complaints have now all but ceased.

One way to determine what you want to accomplish is by conducting a cultural audit. This is an assessment tool, usually using questionnaires or focus groups, to uncover concerns employees have about racial, gender and lifestyle differences. Even looking at previous discrimination cases will give human resources managers an idea of the issues that their companies need to address (see "Employees Use Diversity-training Exercise Against Lucky Stores in Intentional-discrimination Suit"). With individualized information, employers can begin to customize programs.

A cultural audit at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, revealed that 160 employees perceived favoritism among certain groups, unfair treatment of women and minorities, and communication problems. After the company had gathered the results, employees directed the diversity intervention, using the data to decide among themselves how to change the environment.

Another key to the success of training is to implement strategies that support diversity as an overall business philosophy. For example, companies should hold managers accountable for their efforts to promote a diverse work force. Organizations should establish diversity councils, task forces and support groups to monitor and provide feedback continually on the progress of diversity programs. It's also helpful to revise existing policies, programs and systems to reflect the company's commitment to pluralism. Florida Power and Light has added a diversity component to its existing training programs, such as the new-employee orientation, leadership training and new-supervisor orientation.

A strong employee-communication plan is also vital to the success of a training effort. It communicates how the program is in the best interest of the company, positioning it as a business response to societal changes. Coca-Cola USA in Atlanta overcame its employees' initial reluctance to participate in training by communicating the reasons behind the company's diversity effort.

It's important to initiate these activities before beginning training. "Part of the problem with doing training too early is the workers return to a workplace that doesn't support what they've learned," says Mary Martinez, an associate with Organization Resources Counselors Inc. in New York City. "Although training is important, it clearly can't, by itself, create cultural change."

Hiring the right trainer can prevent diversity problems.
Once you've considered carefully your overall diversity effort, it's time to hire a diversity trainer. Deciding whom to hire will be one of the most important decisions your company ever will make related to diversity. Considering the flood of trainers on the market today, the process can be overwhelming. How can you tell by looking at a brochure or a proposal if a particular trainer is right for your company? You can't. HR professionals must look beyond the brochures.

The first decision is whether an in-house trainer or external consultants will conduct the training. Some training professionals argue that external consultants are more objective and likely to receive respect from employees. Others believe that internal trainers are better at understanding company culture and managing the training process.

In-house trainers currently are conducting training at the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia. Rosemary Conine, manager of program development and analysis, says that the company's 9,000 employees haven't received the program well. "The trainers don't have any credibility with other employees," she says.

Conversely, at Palo Alto, California-based Hewlett-Packard, internal trainers have managed the company's diversity awareness program for four years without complaints from participants.

If you do go outside for trainers, you should review their credentials thoroughly. Ask for references and follow up on them. Ask candidates to prepare a proposal that explains how they're going to link the training they offer to the organizational culture.

"You have to create the infrastructure to support the change that's taking place."
ElsieY. Cross,
Elsie Y. Cross Associates, Inc.

Many large HR consulting organizations have added diversity training to their menu of services. But Tulin cautions against hiring a company to do the training. "Insist on meeting the people who will do this work," he says. This will give you a feeling for their sense of humor, their comfort level with racial issues and their training philosophy.

Another recommendation is to conduct a pilot program to monitor the effectiveness of a particular trainer before signing a long-term contract. Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority neglected to do this, committing the company to a 70-session training program with an untested consultant. It was clear after about five sessions that this person wasn't working out.

Finally, ask the potential trainers to describe their strengths and weaknesses. Often, this will uncover the extent of the diversity work the trainers have conducted on themselves. "I may not be skilled in dealing with the Asian culture, for example, and clients have a right to know this," says Kendall.

Diversity training does have a place in today's workplace, and the goal of that training should be to create a work environment in which all people can have a successful experience. This assignment may be explosive. However, HR professionals can navigate the land mines by researching the backgrounds of the trainers they hire carefully and by viewing training as part of a comprehensive diversity effort.

Personnel Journal, April 1993, Vol. 72, No. 4, pp. 50-62.