Communication Theory and Training Approaches for Multiculturally Diverse Organizations: Have Academics and Practitioners Missed the Connection?

By Arai, Marguerite; Wanca-Thibault, Maryanne et al. | Public Personnel Management, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Communication Theory and Training Approaches for Multiculturally Diverse Organizations: Have Academics and Practitioners Missed the Connection?


Arai, Marguerite, Wanca-Thibault, Maryanne, Shockley-Zalabak, Pamela, Public Personnel Management


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.[1] 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.[2] 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."[3]

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.[4]

Organizations must learn to harness a diversity of views to understand the multiculturalism of the 1990s and beyond.[5] However, there are several underlying assumptions that are key to understanding the overall potential that diversity training has for changing behaviors in the workplace.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] Moreover, reports indicate that diversity training is increasingly included as a part of other programs.[9]

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many such programs garner negative reactions from participants. Charges of political correctness and white-male bashing typify such responses.[10] 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. …

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