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Monday, September 24, 2007

Diving into Diversity

By Beverly Smith

is a strange little word. When people start looking at it, and add the word "training," things start to get interesting. Now there is not only variety, but also training to go with that variety. How do you train a person in variety? People start getting a little worried. "Did I hear you correctly?" they ask. "You're saying both my company and our employees will benefit? Who says so? And, why pick on me? I do my job, and get along with my coworkers."

Here's why: It wasn't always like this, and in some workplaces, it still isn't.

When our grandparents were growing up, people chose to assimilate rather than tout their diversity. They feared if they didn't fit in, they wouldn't be accepted—and if they weren't accepted, they wouldn't be able to find a job. They had blacklists in those days, and if you were on someone's "black" list, you weren't hirable.

People fear what they don't know or understand, which is where formal, corporate learning programs about diversity can be helpful. Why do we need diversity in the workplace? The answer is simple: because it is the right thing to do. But more than that, businesses make more money when they support a diverse workforce. More companies are doing business internationally, which means their customer bases also are changing. To serve these new customer bases, companies need employees who respect the differences of others, and, in turn, provide more revenue for stakeholders.

Companies are using diversity training to educate everyone from the CEO to frontline workers. When it starts at the top, and cascades down to the rest of the organization, frontline employees know their company considers diversity a key strategy.

There's a reason you're now hearing so much about diverse workforces. Interest in diversity has gone global. Initiatives to make organizations more diverse in the UK have launched, with nearly 70 percent of British firms reporting the presence of diversity policies. But some critics say these UK companies have no intention of doing anything about their diversity initiatives—they just want credit for having them. The latest UK population statistics show it is worthwhile for these organizations to follow through. Forty percent of students in UK public schools are ethnic minorities. Companies that want to continue doing business, and attracting customers, realize they need to understand diversity from the inside to prosper long term.

Diversity gained a foothold in the United States in the 1980s. Anti-discrimination laws were passed, and more women entered the workforce, along with other minorities. Companies were required to make appropriate accommodations for the new hires, and not all of them resisted doing the right thing. Many wanted to provide a safe, healthy, and friendly work environment, regardless of their legal obligations.

As in the UK, the U.S. companies that launch diversity initiatives are reflecting growing changes in their country’s population. The U.S. minority population is 98 million, representing one-third of the country's people. Hispanics are the largest minority with 42.7 million, according to the Spokesman Review.

Despite the gains made in accommodating employee diversity, Workplace Safety reports there are numerous Hispanic fatalities each year because too many Spanish-speaking workers didn't understand the training material provided. Tests should be administered so the trainer has proof all employees understand the learning content. This is especially critical in a dangerous work environment.

The National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI) recommends diversity be approached from the perspective of "training the trainers." They believe people are less resistant to being a team trainer than taking a class that presumes to teach them how to respect others.

Diversity issues sometimes arise in surprising places—such as the medical profession. Diversity training was never mentioned once during my 10 years as an employee at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, TX. Hospital policy stated that sexual harassment would not be tolerated; four safety classes had to be attended each year; immunizations had to be updated, but not a word about diversity. Maybe it was assumed that since there is every type of person on Earth in a hospital (at one time or another), diversity awareness wasn't a problem.

But in actuality, that awareness often is only achieved following legal action. Lawsuits—or the fear of them—are a huge contributing factor in many companies' push to institute diversity training. The problem is, organizations frequently spend millions of dollars on diversity training without scrutinizing the instructors or learning material.

R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co. did just that. It hired a company to deliver training designed to "make white employees confront their alleged racism." The training was court ordered after previous lawsuits. They had questionnaires asking if black people had a distinctly different body odor, and if Puerto Ricans were more sexually loose than other nationalities. Every employee had to sit through movies that showed the Ku Klux Klan during lynchings. One worker had to sit through the movie four times. The company eventually was sued for racial discrimination, according to Forbes. The suit was settled in 2004 with an additional $15 million against the now-closed plant.

This brings up the type of trainer companies need. You want a person who's passionate about making employees aware of diversity, but not one disposed to raging at the podium. NCBI recommends asking questions about how they would handle hypothetical racially/ethnically charged situations, so you can evaluate their competence. In addition, ask how they plan to put the program together. The more questions you come up with, and the better their answers, the better your program will run.

As you would before launching any training program, conduct a needs-assessment of your company to isolate knowledge gaps in diversity awareness. Meanwhile, top executives in your company must support the training. A statement should be made indicating the value of diversity training to the company. Don't state it is required because people will start thinking negatively before they even arrive. Whenever possible, have someone within the firm deliver your instruction, since training that comes from within is accepted more easily than training delivered by outsiders.

Pfizer is one company that has made great strides in diversity. Jeff Kindler, previously president, partner brands at McDonald's, joined the Pfizer legal team in 2001. His top priority upon arrival was diversity. Kindler, who says he enjoys a diverse culture, values the different perspectives diversity adds to a discussion. "We don't have the luxury of overlooking the most talented people," Carol Casazza Herman, assistant general counsel, Pfizer Inc., told the Corporate Legal Times. "If we don't create a culture where different types of people can thrive, we’re going to lose out." Pfizer's legal department developed diversity programs for five different areas, including recruiting and hiring, development, retention, supplier diversity and communications. The company also created scholarships for minorities, as well as a summer internship program specifically for minority law students.

A diverse workplace does not happen by accident. OK, so maybe it might happen in a very small company, but not in a large one. Someone must make a conscious decision the workplace will become diverse. Not only do they need to make the decision; they also have to make sure everyone plays nicely with each other. If they don't learn to play together, then someone will take all their diversity marbles, and those of their friends, and go home. Bottom line: Companies need to teach workers to respect and communicate effectively with one another. Without proper respect and communication, you are not working with a strong foundation, and your diverse house will come tumbling down.

About the Author

Beverly Smith lived in nine countries on five continents for 18 years. She was exposed to a wide variety of cultures, and currently is an MBA student at Sam Houston State University.

Source : ManageSmarter


Anonymous said...

Creating a thriving environment for employees is critical to achieving business goals. People are the source of all competitive advantage. Therefore, companies should trust in the strength, diversity and creativity of their people. Cultivating a diverse employee population brings new and richer perspectives to their jobs and enables companies to better understand, anticipate and respond to the changed marketplace.

Anonymous said...

Companies should know that simply having diversity in the work force is not enough. They must create an inclusive environment where all people can contribute their best work, an environment that values diverse backgrounds, experiences and ways of thinking. Diversity and inclusion strategy should be dedicated to reaching all potential candidates. And once talented individuals join, people programs should help these individuals build great careers.

Anonymous said...

Today, diversity and inclusion is driven by competitive advantage, not corrective action. companies are hiring diverse employees and executives in order to reflect -- and thus more effectively serve -- increasingly diverse customer bases and allowing them to capitalize on emerging consumer segments.