While a number of articles have looked at the importance of multicultural training in the workplace over the past 30 years, there is little concrete agreement that documents the common fundamental elements of a "successful" diversity initiative. A review of the training literature suggests the importance of human communication theory and practice without including important research, methodologies, and practice from the communication discipline. This article examines formal diversity approaches, provides examples from the literature of several successful diversity initiatives in larger organizations, identifies the limited use of communication-based approaches in diversity training, and discusses the importance of integrating communication theory and practice in future training efforts.
Since the early 1970s diversity in the workplace has increased creating new situations for which many organizations have not been prepared. Broadly defined, cultural diversity can be understood as differences in age, ethnic heritage, gender, physical ability and qualities, religious belief, and sexual/affectional orientation. For example, of the 2.9 million women in the workforce who hold management or administrative positions in the private sector, 86 percent are white. Expectations for the next decade predict women and people of color will fill 75 percent of the 20+ million new jobs created in the United States. By the year 2010 white men are expected to account for less than 40 percent of the total American workforce. Managing this diversity involves the "systematic and planned commitment by organizations to recruit, retain, reward, and promote a heterogeneous mix of employees."
The influx of women and people of color in the workplace has frequently led to confusion, discomfort, and irritation. Indeed, workplace diversity has been blamed for an increase in poor working relationships. While early on many organizations learned to live with diversity by adhering to affirmative action mandates and civil rights laws, there was still a widespread belief that diversity programs are wasteful and unnecessary.
Organizations must learn to harness a diversity of views to understand the multiculturalism of the 1990s and beyond. However, there are several underlying assumptions that are key to understanding the overall potential that diversity training has for changing behaviors in the workplace. First, diversity is no longer simply a matter of complying with government mandates. Second, organizations at all levels need to learn more about cultural diversity and their own responses to those who are different. Third, there is a low degree of personal comfort with cultural differences due to limited knowledge and a resistance to change. Finally, there are a number of costs (e.g., high turnover, absenteeism, recruiting and retraining costs, miscommunication, conflict, etc.) associated with not being proactive when it comes to diversity.
Statistics suggest that companies spend from $200-300 million dollars a year on diversity training. During the 1990s organizations have increasingly turned to a variety of training programs to initiate proactive attempts to value and/or manage diversity issues. In 1994, Training's annual Industry Report found that 56 percent of U.S. organizations with 100 or more employees were sponsoring some sort of diversity training. This number was up sharply from 40 percent some three years earlier. In 1995, the percentage declined slightly to 53 percent. Government agencies and 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies currently provide some type of workforce diversity training. Moreover, reports indicate that diversity training is increasingly included as a part of other programs.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many such programs garner negative reactions from participants. Charges of political correctness and white-male bashing typify such responses. Despite numerous negative reactions to diversity training, a recent study by the Conference Board found that 85 percent of companies offering diversity training listed competitive issues and business needs as the reasons for the training.
This paper examines formal diversity approaches, provides examples from the literature of "successful" initiatives in several larger organizations, identifies the limited use of communication-based approaches in diversity training, and culminates in a discussion of the importance of integrating communication theory and practice in future organizational diversity initiatives.
Types of Formal Diversity Training
Diversity training has been categorized in different ways. One perspective looks at six general classifications: (1) ethnic, black, or feminist studies, (2) psychotherapeutic approaches, (3) sensitivity training, (4) dissonance creation, (5) cultural awareness, and (6) legal awareness.
Ethnic, black, or feminist studies are described as academic classes using in-depth analysis to review status of minority groups in a dominant society. Content ranges from studying the contributions of women and minority members in American society to criticizing Western civilization using deconstructionist techniques.
Psychotherapeutic approaches include group therapy involving groups experiencing conflict. Content for the psychotherapeutic approach includes dwelling on the history of animosity and loss brought on by ethnic hatred. Group therapy encourages acknowledgment with neighbors that wrongs have occurred and, if appropriate, the exhibition of contrite behaviors.
Sensitivity training is designed to sensitize individuals to feelings provoked by discrimination. Content tactics include separating individuals by characteristics like eye color and then arbitrarily discriminating against a group to illustrate the underlying belief that all individuals are hurt by discrimination. For example, men are separated from women, and women are empowered through role-playing to sexually harass men. This strategy is used to illustrate the belief that men victimize women.
The dissonance creation approach is based on purposely creating cognitive dissonance with the hope that the target audience will resolve inconsistencies by changing attitudes and ultimately behaviors. Tactics range from requiring an individual who exhibits initial prejudice to write an essay showing the absurdities of stereotyping to requiring an individual who shows initial prejudice to debate in favor of the idea that the dominant group is oppressive.
Cultural awareness training provides an exploration of cultural or gender differences. Tactics range from discussing stereotypes and unintentional slights to building consensus on ways to avoid stereotyping. Cultural awareness training also separates the oppressed from the oppressive while encouraging the former to express their feelings to the latter.
Finally, legal awareness training is based on explaining discrimination laws. Content includes describing various activities that violate the law with an explanation of the consequences of the violation. Content also includes discussing unfairness and bias in laws and the injustice present in white-male dominated justice systems.
A second perspective identifies five categories of diversity training. These include: (1) introduction to diversity, (2) focused awareness, (3) skill building, (4) sexual or other forms of harassment, and (5) integrated diversity training.
The first category, introduction to diversity and its implications for business generally and one's own firm in particular, is used by 40 percent of U.S. companies in their training programs. Introductory training usually includes the presentation of demographic statistics, a brief overview of historical approaches to diversity in organizations, descriptions of distinctions between affirmative action and valuing diversity, provision for basic self-awareness building, and exercises to help individuals see ways in which they may unconsciously harbor and act upon various stereotypes. The purpose of this type of program is to begin to develop a shared definition and vocabulary around diversity, to share the organization's rationale and goals, and to create a sense of positive interest in further individual training. This type of workshop also can provide an initial forum for discussing diversity outside the organization in the customer environment.
The second type of training is in-depth, focused awareness development. These programs feature more individual and small group interactions. They pursue an understanding of the nature, functions, and prevalence of various stereotypes in the organizational setting. Sometimes they will focus on race, gender, or particular ethnic groups. The purpose of these programs is to expand individual understanding as a means to changing behavior in relation to other employees and those in the business environment.
A third type of training is the skill building workshop. This training is designed to teach specific communication skills such as listening across differences, conflict resolution, interviewing, and mentoring with an emphasis on the ways gender, race, culture, or other differences may affect the process.
Another training technique in this category targets the workshop for specific minority groups within an organization. For example, some companies have developed programs for middle management level women who are trying to counteract the effects of the perceived "glass ceiling." This type of program can have a negative impact if members of the targeted group are perceived as being less prepared than others are to advance within the organization or if the targeted group is perceived as getting special assistance or attention. Some organizations have avoided these problems by having members of the targeted group develop these workshops for other members as a function of a special support network.
Skills communicated in such workshops are useful to all employees and may be offered more effectively as part of generally available programs. For example, if an organization with a large Hispanic population makes English language training available to its employees, it may also choose to make Spanish language training available; recognizing that bilingualism will be valuable to both native Spanish and English speakers.
A fourth type of training is the workshop on sexual or other forms of harassment. Such programs usually focus on communicating the legal definition of harassment and the organization's policies and practices for dealing with such occurrences. Sometimes these efforts provide discussion where conflicting feelings and concerns about the definition of harassment can be aired.
The final type of training is integrated diversity training. Such programs integrate appropriate diversity issues into the course of pre-existing and new training efforts that target specific functional skills or business goals. For example, in a customer service training program the particular challenges and opportunities of serving a diverse customer base can be introduced. Integrated efforts such as these are able to continually link diversity to business activities. Integrated diversity training can ensure that diversity issues are raised often and in varying forums, making it more difficult to compartmentalize and dismiss them.
Organization Training Examples
Organizations differ widely in their goals and approaches for diversity training. Relying on "cookie-cutter" replications of other company's practices is a dangerous proposition. What works for one organization may not work for another. According to the extant research there is no clear evidence that diversity training programs are preceded by an in-depth analysis of how they should be developed, conducted, and evaluated over time. Instead, they typically are instituted based on anecdotal information and management mandate. Yet, while diversity research fails to establish generalizable standards for success, it appears that a few large organizations are finding strategies that are working to change their employees' behaviors about diversity.
For example, Proctor & Gamble (P&G) has created a diversity strategy that builds on the base of the company's earlier anti-discrimination efforts in the 1960s. Recognizing some negative trends in turnover, absenteeism, and minority advancement, P&G developed the Advancement of Women Initiative. This program, part of the company's global business strategy, recognizes the discrimination that all women, and particularly minority women, face in the workplace. There are several key strategies that underlie the program's continuing success. First, yearly planning is vital and addresses important advancement issues for women in the organization. Second, accountability on the part of managers to work with and manage diverse populations is included as part of the performance review process. Third, there is ongoing communication between managers and staff around the program's initiatives and goals. Fourth, there is emphasis on measuring, reporting, and follow-up on outcomes related to retention, job satisfaction, and perceptions of organizational support. Finally, the organization is active in developing various support efforts (e.g., mentoring, networks, career planning) for women. Overall, the program has had some measurable success. The number of women executives nationally has tripled, and women account for 31 percent of senior management. Retention rates, which were historically poor among women, equalized with those of men by 1997. The current focus of the program is to achieve similar results in the international sectors of P&G.
Wisconsin Power and Light has established employee diversity as one of its key goals. The goal includes specific expectations: (1) appreciating diversity at all levels of the organization, (2) providing a work environment that supports diversity, and (3) communicating diversity expectations on a company-wide basis. The company provides a Diversity of Workforce Awareness Workshop based on the concept that once employees recognize the similarities among and differences between the people in their work groups, they will be more aware of the diversity on a company-wide, nation-wide, and world-wide scale. One reason for the success of the program could be top management support of its premises and practices.
Chevron Corporation's multinational activities and changing demographics have resulted in the organization incorporating diversity programs into all levels of their business planning. One of the many programs developed by the organization include discussions on perceiving cultural differences, understanding the unspoken rules of the organization, creating an environment in which individuals can fully utilize their talents to benefit the company, and smoothing over cultural and professional differences.
J. Howard & Associates believes that the needs of men as employees are overlooked in diversity training. They offer an Efficacy Seminar for Men, a four-day program that develops participants' skills in socialization, goal setting, self-analysis, risk-taking, team building, and conflict resolution.
The CoreStates Financial Corporation's approach to diversity encourages confrontation in a four-day training program called Intervention. The training focuses on confronting stereotypes and examining attitudes and behaviors that people have toward those different from them. Lunt also discusses a financial institution, First Chicago, which includes diversity training for all of its managers.
Effective diversity training reflects the values of the organization and the individuals in that organization. Therefore, it is not surprising to find diversity training initiatives differing, sometimes significantly, from organization to organization. However, what is even more troubling is that researchers and organizations have no clear, consistent processes for measuring how and why programs are successful. Simply trying to reconcile the program with an organization's "bottom line" may not provide enough information for replication in other settings. In particular, communication research has focused limited efforts to determine the theories and principles that underlie effective diversity training programs.
Communication Approaches in Diversity Training
Embedded in most diversity training approaches are important human communication principles and practices. Although the importance of diversity is broadly acknowledged, less in understood about the communication theory and practices that are used in developing training programs. Following is an initial review of commonly utilized principles and approaches for training. The examples either fail to emphasize the role that communication plays in diversity training or simplify/generalize important communication principles.
A workshop developed by Gentile on Identifying and Communicating About Our Group Identities and Our Differences is designed to assist participants in becoming aware of their own group memberships and how they affect experiences, assumptions, and perceptions. In addition, there is focus on how others affect self and an exploration of similarities and differences between types of group identities. The end goal is to develop skills that enable participants to talk directly about their differences. They are asked to prepare written reflections of their experiences as a minority, to evaluate the experiences of others through a series of case studies, and to discuss differences in facilitated sessions. The workshop does not overtly present human communication principles, although extensive use is made of small-group facilitated communication throughout the workshop. In a conflict management design case studies are interspersed with theory-based discussion to create an understanding of diversity and conflict. Here two communication principles are stressed: participation patterns in groups and the concept of groupthink.
Another approach associated with communication principles is called ubuntu. It applies African philosophy to diversity training. A Nguni word, ubuntu means "the quality of a human being," and is an acronym for a change process associated with diversity training: U - uncover; B - build and bridge; U - understand; N - neutral space, new input, and negotiation; T - transformation; and, U - utilization. Each step of the process includes a what-why-how-when-where- and who chart that provides trigger questions to initiate and continue the task. Communication concepts utilized in this form of training include non-judgmental behaviors, expression of empathy, perception based on willingness to communicate, unconditional positive regard, and participation. These concepts are presented as relationship-enhancing qualities important for improving cross-cultural interactions. The training itself progresses through a series of steps with participants expected to complete all steps at an individualized pace.
Although, " . . . many regard communication as a basic, straightforward management tool, it is actually one of the most complex aspects of managing a diverse workforce. Without awareness of nuances in language and differences in style, the potential for garbled communication is enormous when interacting with others." This reference suggests that training should prepare participants to improve their language sensitivity -- knowledge of words and expressions that are appropriate and inappropriate in communicating with diverse groups -- and develop an awareness of stylistic elements of communication. Guidelines for appropriate use of language are included as well as a lexicon of appropriate terms. In addition, there is emphasis on communication style. This includes modes of interaction, reference points, authority bases, degree of self-disclosure, modes of expression, methods of support, methods of disagreement, vocal characteristics, methods of assertion, physical proximity, and reliance on protocol. Finally, information on decoding garbled communication is included in the process.
Another type of diversity training workshop provides the participants with a strong focus on communication topics. Identified as workshops designed to increase interpersonal effectiveness, participants are provided training in building intercultural communication skills, cross-gender communication skills, and conflict resolution skills in a diverse environment. Cultural assumptions and values are examined, and specific examples of communication differences across cultures are provided. Gender differences are presented as strengths. A specific model of cross-gender communication for the workplace is practiced. Conflict style analysis is introduced with a discussion of the impact of culture on preferences. Participants develop strategies for resolving conflict in diverse work environments. While utilizing communication as the primary strategy for increasing interpersonal effectiveness, the workshops base assumptions about cultural similarities and differences on somewhat limited and generalized communication research.
Gardenswartz and Rowe provide a desk reference for planning diversity programs and a series of activities, work sheets, and charts that may be used in designing a training program. Extensive attention is devoted to human communication both in the reference guide and the activities. For example, they describe language as only the beginning of cross-cultural communication. They emphasize specific sources of cultural misunderstanding and describe the frustration of not understanding or being understood. Dealing with other languages on the job is presented as well as strategies for communicating with a limited, English-speaking staff. Accents are discussed as well as accent reduction training for presenters and customer contact staff. Several approaches are provided for presenting English training as well as translation pitfalls and computer-assisted interaction strategies. Constructive feedback strategies and principles for communicating expectations are also addressed.
As all of the approaches presented in this section illustrate, there is a somewhat limited and generalized communication research and theoretical base provided as a grounding framework for training.
Issues for Diversity Training
With the growing need for diversity training, other concerns have also surfaced. Three issues are most frequently identified: (1) the role that training strategies should play in the overall diversity initiative, (2) the use of training strategies and tactics, and (3) the lack of guidelines to evaluate programs and methods.
Most diversity initiatives (not necessarily the most successful ones) rely almost exclusively on training to instill the concepts and skills needed by the workforce to handle differences. The current research cautions against developing training programs without first creating a strong set of goals to guide the process. Organizations must initially decide if their goal is merely to expand individual awareness of differences, or to change the culture (i.e., attitudes, values, practices, language, etc.) of the entire organization. From this perspective training is either individually motivated or systems motivated. Individual training is similar to the inter-cultural training that is conducted by government agencies for their employees overseas and for employees of transnational organizations. While this type of training acknowledges differences, it does little to evoke significant resistances among participants, and is easily and inexpensively delivered to an audience. The primary disadvantage is that it does not go far enough to encourage any long-term change. It depends on the possibility that individuals will conduct themselves differently once they understand that others may have different worldviews. The primary focus is on empathy as a means of guiding behavior; skills training is not at the heart of the approach.
On the other hand, a systems approach to diversity directly addresses issues of dominance and difference. "It recognizes that racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression are not just matters of individual bias and prejudice, but have taken root in the culture of the organization at every level." Unlike the individual training focus, systems training addresses underlying discrimination that often makes for discomfort and resistance on the part of the dominant group. In addition to creating awareness, this format entails important skills training to change the traditional power dynamics in an organization. Because the change is at a cultural level, much of the training is initially targeted from the top down. This assumes there is an up-front commitment from top executives and managers. This program is a 3-part process. The first phase includes developing awareness and building commitment to change. The second phase builds the framework for change at all levels of the organization. Communication is a key channel for successful, continued change. The third phase allows for institutionalization or the integration of the new cultural norms and roles into the organization.
The second issue in diversity training is training strategies and tactics. The manner in which training is conducted has received criticism, especially when practices are designed to create discomfort for the participants. These strategies and tactics are utilized to engage participants in experiencing the negative effects of exclusion from majority status. Tactics for white-male bashing are the most frequently criticized. A review of published training strategies and outlines reveals limited use of these tactics. However, as previously noted, true cultural change may require making the dominant group aware (and uncomfortable) of the discrimination and oppression others are experiencing.
There is no single best way to manage diversity. An organization's approach to diversity training depends on the pressures they feel to diversify, the type of diversity required, and management's attitudes and commitment to diversity in the organization. They present a contingency model for implementing and managing diversity. The first consideration is the type of strategic response the organization has to diversity issues. These responses include (1) proactive, (2) accommodative, (3) defensive, and (4) reactive. In addition, the model also measures how the organization typically responds to change. They either see implementation as (1) episodic, (2) freestanding, or (3) systemic. Finally, the model considers the degree of internal and external pressures placed upon the organization as well as the priority management gives issues of diversity. The authors contend that because diversity is often defined differently across organizations, the costs and benefits are calculated differently. Thus, there is little agreement about what constitutes a successful diversity program or how diversity training might be standardized in organizations.
The third issue raised by diversity training is what constitutes realistic expectations for change and how such change might be accurately measured. From a legal perspective diversity training has fallen short of its promised results. From 1991-1997 lawsuits filed by women and minorities have increased. Resolution of cases (a better indicator than the number of filings) in favor of the filing party is up by 75 percent. Moreover, other measures of success are often not taken into account. An article in Training recommends looking for results over a five-year period, giving time for employees to learn to work together effectively. However, there is no magic formula.
Continued use of field experiments and anecdotal information as a tool for assessment of diversity training programs is inadequate. The four research alternatives they suggest are (1) research-administrator partnerships, (2) researcher observation within organizations, (3) case histories and analysis, and (4) third party evaluations. The purpose of the first collaboration is meant to help in designing a program and research project to fit the organization. Second, because most data are collected in the area of diversity through archival data, mailed surveys, and secondary database analysis, the use of researcher observation provides several advantages. First, it allows researchers and administrators greater personal contact in the organizational environment. Research observation also helps to capture the complexities of organizational life that other data collection methods do not. This approach has the potential to provide additional insight into organizational life. Third, case histories move beyond stories. Well-designed case studies conducted over a reasonable time period provide the advantages of tracking how programs evolve, revealing anomalies, and providing a basis for developing grounded theory, to name a few. Finally, third party evaluations by a single person or research team unaffiliated with the program or organization allow for greater objectivity in assessing the skepticism frequently attached to training programs.
Success Factors for Diversity Training
There are several success factors for organizations implementing effective diversity training and diversity programs. They suggest that three components are essential for a truly diversified organization: (1) support and involvement of senior managers; (2) different but equal operating philosophies; and (3) expanded definitions of effective performance. Additionally, to improve diversity training, issues of diversity must be linked to the bottom line. Diversity must be defined to encompass all groups, including white men, and participants should not be forced to take diversity training.
A study reporting responses from 785 human resource professionals about diversity issues in their organizations found that both training adoption and perceived training success were strongly associated with top management support for diversity. In addition, training adoption was associated with (1) larger sized organizations, (2) positive top management beliefs about diversity, (3) high strategic priority of diversity relative to other competing objectives, (4) presence of a diversity manager, and (5) existence of a large number of other diversity-supportive policies. Perceived training success was also associated with (1) mandatory attendance for all managers, (2) long-term evaluation of training results, (3) managerial rewards for increasing diversity, and (4) a broad inclusionary definition of diversity in the organization.
Human Communication Theory and Diversity Training
Diversity training is pervasive in many types of organizations. There is little likelihood that in the foreseeable future demands for this training will lessen. What is less well understood are the types and approaches to diversity that make a positive difference within organizations. The lack of understanding about what specifically contributes to productive change rests, at least in part, in a lack of theoretical grounding for most training efforts. Furthermore, a review of published examples of diversity training finds numerous declarations of the importance of human communication with little attention paid to fundamentals of human communication previously established in the discipline's literatures. Finally, this review of diversity training approaches suggests that training in and of itself is unlikely to contribute to overall organizational change or changes in the quality of work life for employees. Most studies of successful diversity training efforts find that training is only one component of productive change. Change must be part of an overall strategy that includes defining goals, measuring and assessing change, skills training, and accountability. Thus, top management involvement and support are critical for long-term change as well as embedding training within a larger change effort. Rather than simply committing to valuing diversity, companies must create an atmosphere of inclusion, fairness, openness, and empowerment that can support diversity initiatives.
In sum, most diversity training emphasizes communication theory and practice without including important research, methodologies, and practice from the communication discipline. Diversity training practitioners also bear responsibility for the design of programs and the influence their efforts have on the diverse organizations of the future. The discipline has much to offer and members need to take more responsibility. When it comes to the development of training methods, there are several key areas that communication research and practice can target. Some of the more obvious include interpersonal, small group, and culture/intercultural communication.
Interpersonal communication theory in general provides a way for individuals to come to better understand themselves and others in the context of their communication. Specifically, interpersonal knowledge, attribution theory, self-disclosure, rhetorical sensitivity, and communicator style are specific theories that develop a composite view of self in relation to others. In addition, relational theories that deal with perception, interpersonal attraction, and relational dimensions are valuable in helping to gain insight into similarities and differences between individuals.
While an individual focus is an important starting point, diversity also entails working with difference in a larger social setting. From that perspective, the research from group communication is relevant to diversity training and should be incorporated in any successful training approach. Group development and dynamics and conflict resolution are examples of theories that should frame our perspectives on training.
At a more macro-level, training initiatives must consider the impact of cultural/intercultural issues. There is extensive communication research that could be useful. For example, the work on the construction of social reality is fundamental to understanding how our reality is embedded in the larger social setting. Much of the work in the area of language and culture would be applicable when looking at specific types of groups (e.g., male/female communication).
While, these suggestions are only a sampling of some of the areas that might be successfully tapped by researchers and practitioners, it is safe to conclude that the communication academic and the practitioner have much in common and are in need of each other.
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Marguerite Arai is the Director of Multicultural Affairs at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. Her research interests include Native American women leaders and self-identity for bi-racial and multi-racial individuals. She is a consultant for diversity training and won the Spring 2000 Faculty Award from the Colorado Alliance for Minority Participation.
Maryanne Wanca-Thibault, Ph.D.
Maryanne Wanca-Thibault, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. Her research interests include new organizational forms, feminist theory in organizations, and domestic violence. She specializes in communication workshops for volunteer organizations.
Pamela Shockley-Zalabak, Ph.D.
Pamela Shockley-Zalabak, Ph.D. is Professor of Communication at the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs. The author of two books and numerous articles on Organizational Communication, her research interests include organizational cultures and organizational effectiveness. She specializes in diagnosing management and leadership problems, in working with team-based organizations, and in conflict resolution.
All authors are afiliated with: University of Colorado -- Colorado Springs Communication Department 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway P.O. Box 7150 Colorado Springs, CO 80933-7150…