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Customize Diversity Training To Meet Specific Goals

NEW ORLEANS—When planning diversity training, start at the desired end to reach an objective tailored specific​ally to suit the needs of those workers who will be trained, recommends Vangela Wade, an Ogletree Deakins attorney in Jackson, Miss.

However, not many diversity training initiatives use this approach, according to Wade, who called generic diversity training one of her “pet peeves” on May 8 at the 2008 Workplace Strategies Conference here.

Employers should “look at your organization and the plants and facilities in different locations” when planning training, Wade remarked. Adequate consideration should be given in advance to the functions and departments of those who may be involved in diversity training or diversity management.

Don’t confuse the two, Wade cautioned. Diversity training is a subset of diversity management, which encompasses such broad business objectives as talent development, recruitment and becoming or staying an employer of choice in a competitive workforce. These are core business objectives necessary for a business’ very survival, Wade told SHRM Online.

Customizing Training by Department

Customizing diversity training by department is important to make sure trained employees have specific takeaways for their jobs.

Diversity training for employees might help deal with cultural competencies to work across cultural lines or gender or geographic regions or origins, Wade noted. Diversity training for managers might focus on different issues such as making sure that managers are recruiting from a diverse group of candidates and have the skills to lead the management of a diverse staff. Wade added that sales and marketing instead might be trained on how to market to people from a multitude of backgrounds more effectively.

Diversity training “is not one size fits all,” she emphasized.

Leigh Nason, an Ogletree Deakins attorney in Columbia, S.C., agreed, saying, “your issues in Lubbock, Texas, may be a lot different from those in Pennsylvania or California.”

Dennis Davis, Ph.D. and Ogletree Deakins’ director of training, said that often in the South he will encounter managers who do not realize that they are belittling women by referring to them with such patronizing terms as “darling” or “honey.” The employees sometimes think this is fine just as long as they don’t intend for the references to be sexual or romantic. So, Davis agreed that employers should “customize to the region where you are.”

He cautioned though that there are some “general issues that you’ve got to hit” in diversity training “no matter how much you customize it.”

Ice Breakers

Once you know what the objective of the training is, one of the biggest challenges in diversity training can be getting the conversation on diversity started on the right note once the training actually begins.

Davis suggested this as an ice breaker: opening the floor to find out what trainees expect to get out of the training. He said this can be a good way to catch people off guard; plus, it can get them involved in a discussion immediately. Davis said one of the biggest mistakes that trainers make when conducting diversity training is spending too much time talking to them describing their own experiences.

Kristin Binkley, a conference attendee who is an in-house counsel and employee relations manager with Nike Inc. in Beaverton, Ore., told SHRM Online that she often starts diversity training by asking participants to describe their ideal workplace. She’ll write down their comments, which are usually things like “fun.” She then leads the conversation from there into how disrespectful comments can prevent others from experiencing their ideal workplace. This approach has worked, she added.

Davis said that’s exactly what diversity training should focus on: changed behaviors, rather than changing employees’ thoughts.

But some employees have no filter between their thoughts and behaviors, not even in diversity training. And no technique in diversity training is fool-proof.

Douglas Farmer, an Ogletree Deakins attorney in San Francisco, cautioned that while Binkley’s suggestion sounds like a good one, a trainer would have to be ready for the possibility that a smart aleck might raise a hand and say that his idea of an ideal workplace is where he gets to work with people like himself.

Custom-Frame the Training

Some people come into diversity training ready to disrupt it simply because they are turned off by the term “diversity.”

Should the employer even call diversity training by that phrase or refer to it differently? Davis cautioned that if you do refer to training “under the title ‘diversity training,’ then you’ve started off on the wrong foot” because of the preconceptions some employees have when they hear the word “diversity.”

How employers frame diversity training should “depend on the goals they’re attempting to meet,” Wade told SHRM Online. “If the issues within the organization really have a basis in, let’s say, employee behavior or internal issues between employees ... organizations would do better to frame [training] as ‘employee relations’ or ‘professional improvement’ or ‘professional behavior.’ ”

There might also be a connection between the name of the training and the employer’s specific goal for the training, Wade suggested.

Training can help create an affirmative defense under Title VII for an employer should it later be sued by someone who was trained on its complaint procedures. But Wade shared a wide other range of possible objectives. Training might help employees understand how to address workplace differences with colleagues without making others uncomfortable. Or it might help employees understand how to communicate cross-culturally without creating a negative impact, a negative impact that may have been completely unintended or unrecognized.

“When designing the training that’s going to be most beneficial for any employee for any work unit for any location, the best place to start is to assess that particular unit to assess what your outcomes should be,” Wade emphasized, cautioning employers against “creating your objectives without knowing what it is that’s going to benefit that particular group of employees.”

Allen Smith, J.D., is SHRM’s manager of workplace law content.


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