It began as a training tape to show the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers how to deal with the media—and it ended with a media blitz. The tape’s message was simple: Deal with the media politely and professionally. But the tape’s message was expressed with homophobic remarks, racial and ethnic jokes, and sexually charged humor illustrated with strippers. The citizens of San Francisco and 49er fans were not pleased.
“This is an example of why diversity training is so critical,” said Jeff Snipes, CEO and co-founder, Ninth House Inc. “If you look at the 49ers’ situation in particular, the idea that a single, isolated training event will have any meaningful impact on the organization as a whole is wishful thinking. To become a winning team on and off the field will require reinforcing ideal behaviors throughout the organization—hiring the right coaches, modeling the right values, and sustained training and development.”
Snipes said that most sexual harassment and diversity training on the market today is focused on minimizing liability. In essence, it teaches people the rules and regulations so if they screw up and the company is sued, the powers that be can say, “We trained them. We told how to behave properly.”
“It’s just check-the-box sexual harassment training,” Snipes said. “If you want to get to the second level, which is really influencing people’s beliefs and values and prevention, you’re asking a bigger question. If your goal is to show people the ideal way to create a community where people are respected and included, and diversity is valued as an organization, it’s much bigger than just a training program. This goes to the leadership, the executives—how do they hire people? How do they treat people when they talk to them? And what role models do those leaderships set?”
Executives for the 49ers said they knew nothing about the tape’s inappropriate content, though team publicist Kurt Reynolds, who starred in the video, has resigned.
“The only way you’re ever going to really affect the way values impact the organization, and the only way you’re going to create a true culture that values diversity and differences of opinion and backgrounds is to create a community that reinforces that every day,” Snipes said. “A learning or a training program can be a part of that, but it’s going to be insufficient. What message do you send to your troops by the way you interact with them on a daily basis? Are you genuine in your interactions? Is there some sort of routine in the way you come in and greet people and the way you value and listen to them? Or are you trying to be a good old boy in the locker room, slapping backsides, snapping towels, objectifying women, giving them a wink and a smirk and saying, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’”
For Snipes, the solution to diversity, sexual harassment or any sensitive or socially motivated learning initiative includes strong communication, a tangible connection between human resources and learning, and community building. “When you nurture a respectful workplace, there is a real business impact,” Snipes said. “If you were to break this into different levels, there’s a top level, which is superficial: compliance training, check the box, teach everybody what the rules are. There’s a second level, which is around trying to show people why it’s important to do the right thing. There’s a third level, which is what we’re all about. How do you build an organizational community that sustains and reinforces the right values? Then there’s a fourth level: the economic impact. If you don’t have a workforce that’s diverse, it’s probably not as innovative as it can be, because it doesn’t reflect the different ideas and thinking of different types of people. If you have a workforce that minimizes the contributions and values of individuals, then they’re not going to be very productive, because they’re not going to really care about your company.
“If you insult your customers in the way that the 49ers have by degrading women and degrading different ethnic backgrounds, you’re certainly not going to be successful in the marketplace,” Sniped added. “It goes to your brand value. There are real big economic indicators of how much you can sell, how productive your workforce will be. How innovative will you be at representing new ideas and staying in touch with the market? How much will your customers respect and appreciate the service you provide? Those aren’t lawsuit implications. Those are fundamentals of running a business that are in sync with what the market wants. How do you build a community and sustain it so that everyone in the organization gets a sense of what it means to really respect, affirm and include and get the most out of their employees?”
Snipes explained that most companies’ workforces are living up to only 50 percent of their productive value. “The other 50 percent is in the office every day, but they really don’t care,” he said. “They don’t feel valued. They don’t feel like anyone listens to them. They’re not personally committed to the objectives of the organization. The easiest way to turn those people on, get them fired up and 100 percent committed is a building community program where you make them feel like they’re having a real impact and legitimately involve them in the potential of the business. This is a great, high-profile example of what happens when (that is missing), and the team’s losing! It goes right to the heart of the integrity of the firm.”
“It goes to what I call the personal accountability to build the workplace of choice,” said Clifton L. Taulbert, president, The Building Community Institute. “My thought has always been that you definitely want the team to do well, but the members have to do well also. When you personally commit, then we benefit collaboratively from those efforts. The whole notion of diversity must always be under-girded with our complete understanding and embracing of our common humanity and the respect, affirmation and inclusion that is essential for that embracing process. I’ve seen portions of the video, and even though it may speak to what I call locker room humor, and it may have been done to create shock value, the subject matter and the opportunity to impact men and women who are in leadership positions or positions of influence as many athletes find themselves, the issue should have been handled with a greater level of competency. The thought should have been more complete: home, work, play. How do we value diversity for its long-range benefits for our lives and for the lives of our families? When you put it into that context, you’re going to have to have a much broader subject matter. You can’t narrow it down to these little incidents. This is an issue that is much, much bigger than those incidents throughout the video. This is life we’re talking about: How do you handle life that has multiple layers and incredible people who are part of those layers?”
A key component of community building is “intentional unselfishness,” Taulbert added. “When one builds a good community, you really take control of the internal circulatory system of an organization,” he explained. “It’s from that internal circulatory system that the well-being of the organization will be recognized. You have the employee base of the stakeholder, you have stockholders in many cases, and you certainly have the market that you serve. But the people within the company—their daily actions—constitute the internal circulatory system. That system should be checked, rechecked and maintained on a regular basis. That’s what the whole concept of building community is all about.”
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