Can Diversity Training Help?

Are we a better company because we value diversity? Do we make better products? Do we provide better services? Is it a more joyous, fulfilling place for the employees who work here? These may be politically incorrect questions, but they are nonetheless valid ones.

Diversity training has, in many sectors of the business community, become a dirty phrase. In many cases, it has become synonymous with quotas, Affirmative Action, “lowered standards.” Its value as a business tool has come under fire, and the benefits derived from various diversity workshops have been called into question. And correctly so. When a company invests in training, it has a responsibility to ask: did we benefit from that investment?

At the same time the value of diversity workshops is being debated, companies are being held increasingly responsible for hostile work environments. In these instances, the workplace culture has given rise to organizational habits that make life miserable for many employees.

Whether these employees are male, female, African American, Asian, white, older, younger, gay, straight, support versus production, newcomer versus high seniority, Quality Assurance versus everybody else (or so it sometimes feels), the diversity of people and responsibilities in an organization makes it important that the organization treat everyone fairly.

Diversity isn’t solely a question of race and gender. One could have an all-Asian organization, or an all-female organization, or an all-white male organization and still have tremendous “diversity issues” because people don’t always think alike, even if they are the same race, or gender, or job function.

Diversity is, therefore, a matter of organizational culture. Because if there is a culture of fairness, communication, and a willingness to give and receive feedback even when you don’t necessarily like what you’re hearing or what you have to say, then the differences between people – racial differences, job function differences, gender differences, seniority differences, whatever differences – can be handled more easily. The trick is to create an organizational culture that has good habits in how people treat one another – and then reinforce these habits.

Organizational habits, like personal ones, often go unnoticed, making them harder to identify. Just as people may unconsciously bite their nails and not notice they are doing so until someone else points it out, organizations get into habits from doing things a certain way for long periods of time, and may not notice these habits until some feedback mechanism points it out. This harms the organization in many ways, because the marketplace has no patience with organizations that are too set in their ways to understand that the world is changing.

It is the smart organization that self-consciously creates workplace cultures in which employees are trained to handle their diverse, internal relationship issues. Managing one’s team culture not only prevents hostile work environment issues, but it also makes the team flexible enough to continually support one another personally while still succeeding, as a team, in the marketplace.
In this way, matters of race, gender, etc., are handled in the context of making the overall work culture more effective. An organization pre-empts potential problems while creating a work environment that is better for everyone.

It is crucial never to minimize the pain of the so-called “traditional” diversity issues. It is also important to realize that people can be miserable at work even if they are in a homogenous work group; so diversity training that focuses exclusively on racial issues, for example, won’t necessarily help overall organizational problems.

Once we contextualize diversity as a matter of organizational culture, it becomes easier to see the role it plays in developing a superlative organization. In other words, if one assume that a talented, well-designed organization will, over time, create superior products, services, and a workplace environment that people find it a joy to be part of, then it’s easier to see why the organizational competency of effective handling interpersonal differences is valuable. Since all human beings are different, it follows that an organization which is not crippled by those differences, is in fact strengthened by them, is stronger than competitors who are hampered by those same, inevitable human differences. A training program that improves this competency would therefore have a clear strategic benefit to the organization.

Therefore, the best form of diversity training – i.e. one that delivers maximum value to the organization – is the one that combines organizational values with interpersonal relationship management skills. In this way, an organization creates two strengths with the same training, and the value of the diversity training is easier to determine.

Copyright, The Carter Group, Inc.

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