In the past, diversity training could be likened to the red-haired stepsibling, largely ignored until something went wrong, and the “blame storming” and finger-pointing ensued. Now, because organizations are recruiting from a more diverse and often global pool, there are people in the workforce with many different value systems and norms for workplace behavior.
Consequently, there are more opportunities for miscommunication, disagreements and misunderstandings, which training can mitigate. Organizations have to be more proactive in their approach to and appreciation for diversity training in the enterprise.
“We’ve heard a lot about diversity training, and it’s part of our normal lexicon, but it’s still a relatively recent phenomenon,” said Kelly Hannum, Center for Creative Leadership research scientist. “There are still a lot of things to get sorted out, including legality issues around diversity in organizations. That’s gotten more complex as enterprises have become more global, in terms of the workforce that they’re utilizing and/or in terms of the clientele they’re serving. What is completely fine in one situation is not fine in another, from a legal standpoint, and that varies across states to some extent.”
Hannum said much of the impetus for American diversity training is a byproduct of the Civil Rights Movement, which created the environment in which doing inappropriate things in the workplace had legal, and possibly financial, ramifications if offended parties sought punitive damages.
Further, the changing nature of work itself forced companies to consider how they could get groups to work together collaboratively in a way that’s healthy and beneficial for all involved parties.
“Diversity training can have different purposes, depending on the organization and the kind of diversity training the organization is undertaking,” Hannum explained. “It can be as simple as compliance, making the workforce aware of the different laws or company policies around diversity and the consequences of violating those policies. It can range anywhere from that basic level up through strategically leveraging a diverse workforce and enhancing the positive aspects of it. One is a ‘stick approach,’ if you use the carrot stick metaphor, and the other is more of a ‘carrot approach.’ There are blends of both those strategies within certain diversity training programs.”
Diversity training often evolves as a response to organizational issues, whether those issues are based on individual behavior where corrective coaching might be needed, or more systemic issues such as a policy or procedure that benefits or disadvantages a specific group in some way.
Hannum said the latter situation would call for more macro-level diversity training.
“It isn’t always reactive,” she said. “It could even be a proactive organization representative saying, ‘Gosh, we have this diverse workforce, but I don’t think we’re fully capitalizing on the benefits we could have from this. I think we need to look at training to help us do that.’”
Traditional diversity training has focused on sexual harassment, racial disparity or some other concept specific to a particular demographic, but Hannum said, in the future, diversity training will move toward more general concepts as the workforce becomes more demographically heterogeneous and faces more religious, racial, cultural, regional, even professional differences.
“It will be, ‘How do you work with people from a different background, from a different value structure, from a different perspective?’ Versus, ‘How do you work with specific groups?’ Hannum said. “There also will be more looking at the positive aspects of diversity. Historically, it has been on minimizing the negative versus accentuating the positive. It’s a double-edged sword. You have to recognize, yes, when you bring together people from different perspectives and value structures, there is a high likelihood that there’s going to be miscommunication, disagreement and possibly some friction. But there’s also evidence to suggest there’s more creativity, and that can be a much more effective way to get work done.
“Some of that depends on the nature of the work itself, but increasingly, as work moves toward dealing with complex issues in multiple settings, you need a complex workforce — you need to have multiple perspectives weighing in on different things. How do you do that in a way that’s optimally effective, in a way that you can get the benefits of different groups working together? You still need to pay attention to minimizing the negative because you certainly don’t want people walking around, feeling disrespected or undervalued.”
Hannum said there might be a certain level of misunderstanding, conflict and tension on the horizon as companies learn how to deal with diversity proactively and reactively, but respect is a big theme in today’s organizations, and it will continue to be.
“That’s one thing most people can agree on: Everyone wants to be treated with respect, and most people want to treat others with respect, but what that looks like can be very different for different people,” she explained. “The same behavior can be very respectful for one group and completely disrespectful for another group. Diversity training helps to balance that.”Filed under: Leadership Development