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A Crash Course in Diversity

By Dara Cook

In response to an increasingly diverse workforce, companies are trying to help their employees better navigate this new labor environment through diversity training.

"Most people have no idea what diversity training is about. What it does is address people's fear of the unknown." - Mauricio Velasquez, Diversity Training Group
The next time you're charging through a job interview or strolling through your present workplace, take note of the sex and race of those around you. And then-fast-forward-envision a scene of much greater diversity. In just five years, women, people of color, and immigrants will account for a whopping 85 percent of people entering the workforce, according to the Hudson Institute, a public policy research organization.

In response to an increasingly diverse workforce, companies are trying to help their employees better navigate this new labor environment through diversity training. For a variety of reasons, however, many employees are wary of the efforts.

Doubt is fear of the unknown
"I felt I wasn't one of the people who needed it," says Eric Williams, a 32-year-old African-American internal auditor who reluctantly participated in his firm's mandatory diversity training. Estrella Nunes*, a 26-year-old Latina traffic manager, also has a negative opinion of the diversity training process. "It's all talk, no action," she says. And television writer Jeff Foster*, 27, a white male who feels he's already open to diversity, admits that he's been avoiding the training altogether. "I think it's just a way for HR firms to make money," he says.

Williams, Nunes, and Foster are not alone. "Most people have no idea what diversity training is about. What it does is address people's fear of the unknown," says Mauricio Velasquez, president of the Diversity Training Group (DTG), a Virginia-based company that conducts diversity and gender equity training for clients like Hewlett Packard, Lucent Technologies, and Fila. To try to understand this "diversity training adversity," we've decided to learn more: about the objectives of diversity training sessions, the expectations and experiences of participants, and-when all is said and done-the results.

A typical session
Velasquez says that the objectives of DTG's sessions are to help people understand exactly what inclusivity in the workplace means-taking all perspectives and backgrounds into account when making a decision or putting a business practice into place. Trainers explain the benefit of diversity for individuals and the company, and the numerous ways that employees can take an active role in creating an inclusive work environment.

To do all that, a typical training session usually includes some or all of the following elements: a questionnaire to be completed before the session (to elicit participants' initial ideas about difference and diversity), discussion, role-playing, lectures, and films. Though our interviewees' diversity training almost invariably focused on black-and-white racial equity, sessions can be much more inclusive. Vanessa Waite*, a 28-year-old senior analyst, says her investment bank's diversity training emphasized that "diversity is not just about race and gender. It includes gay people, older people, flexibility in the workplace, etc."

Often, a session begins with participants listing stereotypes or characteristics about themselves both as individuals and as members of their respective diversity groups, followed by discussion. Naima Jones*, a 25-year-old former employee at a sports company, attended a training session where sexual orientation became the hot button. "It got tense when someone raised the issue of a gay person not feeling comfortable hanging up a picture of their partner, whereas married people do it with no problem."

For Charles Richmond*, a 29-year-old biracial social worker, this exercise was explosive and illustrated that diversity issues are more than skin deep. "Someone mentioned a stereotype about blacks being lazy and shiftless. A Caribbean-American said, 'That's only true of the American blacks. We [Caribbean blacks] generally have two or three jobs.' Then, everybody was up in arms. We didn't even get to finish the exercise."

Candor is key
The success of these discussions, of course, depends on the candor of participants, a factor that some say is inhibited by management participation. "Because senior management was also in the session, it was hard for people to really say what was on their minds," remembers Nunes. Jones agrees, noting that her company's third highest-ranking executive was also at the training. "I couldn't talk freely with him sitting right there."

One way to overcome this lack of candor is with films. Used effectively, films can give the participants universal, nonthreatening language to use in their communication-a way to talk more easily about complicated issues. For example, Marina Ray*, 26, an assistant vice president of Internet marketing, attended a session where an animated film known as "The Penguin and the Peacock" was shown. In the film, the black-and-white penguins who dominated senior management told a multicolored peacock that she'd be promoted to the board if she toned down her colors. Coveting the promotion, the peacock donned a penguin suit and won the board seat. When her vibrant, recalcitrant colors peeked through the costume, however, the penguins dismissed her.

"After the training, the senior VP said that our current board was all white men and that the company was going to name a new board member shortly," says Ray. "Someone asked, 'Is that person going to be a peacock?' No one would have ever asked that type of question before."

Films can also be an effective means of presenting potentially inflammatory issues, in part because a film can seem more objective than a speaker. Angela Vallot, director of corporate diversity initiatives at Texaco (which has worked to make diversity strides since it settled a $176 million racial discrimination suit in 1996), says that Texaco shows one clip where a car salesman gives a man a low, no-haggle price for a new car but gives a woman a much higher price. "The men in the session were so stunned that women were sometimes treated that way," says Vallot.

But not all diversity training sessions use external examples to talk about internal issues. Some trainers choose to go right to the core. In Waite's session, the facilitators presented actual case studies of diversity insensitivity in the firm. In one case, upper management had denied a qualified Asian analyst a promotion because English was not his first language. "The training let people know that these things do happen. If you haven't had personal experience with [discrimination], you might think diversity training is hogwash," she says.

The lecture component of the sessions can vary considerably, from spelling out general diversity do's and don'ts, like avoiding racial jokes and insensitive statements, to giving diversity trainers a chance to share personal anecdotes. Texaco's lectures stress the importance of embracing diversity and difference as a competitive advantage. Lindy Korn, president and CEO of Williamsville, New York's Diversity Training Workplace Solutions has developed a "psycho-legal" approach to her lectures that teaches employees not just the legal ramifications of racial and gender bias, but also the emotional effects of a hostile work environment.

Changing perceptions
Although participants think that certain aspects of the training are particularly effective, their opinions are mixed on the sessions' overall impact on their companies. Nunes and Jones feel their training neglected their company's most pressing issues of gender inequity and career mobility. Williams believes his training, and diversity training as a whole, are irrelevant in a largely homogenous workplace. "Diversity starts with hiring," he says. Nevertheless, some people, like Ray, see tangible benefits. "Diversity helps the company because you get different ideas and perspectives distributed through the group," says Ray. "The more diverse a company, the greater competitive advantage it has."

Velasquez tells of one participant who was quite outspoken about his aversion to the training, but because the class was mandatory, Velasquez insisted the man remain. "The first third of the class he was blocking me, but by the last third he was participating. As he walked out, he said, 'I'm glad you made me stay.' That's a small statement, but a huge breakthrough," he says.

Such breakthroughs seem to come with diversity training that includes components-be they films, personal stories, or exercises-that impel people to evaluate their current perceptions and actions and even consider changing them. Being open to such changes-and to the very idea of diversity training-helps ensure that each of us is comfortable being our most brilliant, productive, and diverse self.

*Some names in this article have been changed.

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