Training and development needed for successful diversity plan

Often, when employees hear they are being sent for diversity or cultural awareness training, they react as though they’re being punished. To many, this soft-skill training feels a bit like an adult version of a trip to the principal’s office for misbehaving.

This is just one of the many challenges faced by companies that want to implement training programs to make their organization more inclusive. Training departments often face a number of obstacles to implementing diversity training programs, but these challenges can be overcome.

Why diversity?

The reasons for promoting an inclusive work environment go beyond good public relations and warm feelings — it is necessary to succeed in today’s economy. As the face of Canada continues to change, the companies that value diversity will be the ones who succeed.

In a competitive marketplace, organizations need all of the creativity and expertise that they can possibly gather, regardless of cultural or ethnic background. And once people from across the cultural and ethnic spectrum are hired, it is important to make the workplace accommodating and comfortable for everyone, or else those diverse hires will take their skills and creativity elsewhere.

So how does an organization overcome the obstacles and become a more inclusive work environment?

Not on company time

The biggest obstacle of successful diversity training programs is still gaining management “buy-in.” Diversity is too often seen as a cost rather than a benefit to the company. If the organization is compliant with equity legislation or isn’t large enough to be audited, there is often the feeling that nothing else needs to be done and that additional diversity training programs are considered unnecessary and a drain on the budget.

This attitude has become even more common because, as companies closely watch the bottom line, corners are cut wherever possible and employees are asked to do more with less. Because of increased workloads, most employees end up parroting the management position — the idea is good, but they don’t have time to participate in the program.

Another challenge faced by many training departments is the attitude that diversity is a human resources issue. This leads to employees from other departments avoiding diversity training based on the fact that they don’t have to deal with HR issues on a regular basis, overlooking the basic fact that in all jobs and at all times you are working with people.

For the training department to address these attitudes and make their organization more inclusive, they must present a consistent and coherent diversity plan. This plan can include any number of facets, but it must take into account communication and evaluation, as well as steps to ensure any momentum that is achieved is maintained.

Diversity programs that work

Gaining management buy-in can be accomplished in any number of ways, including one-on-one meetings with senior management, which is time consuming, or through e-mail correspondence, which is not clear or direct enough. The most effective way to generate buy-in is with an executive meeting or conference. This session is designed to bring the senior stakeholders together and explain the program, including details of the training sessions, communication strategies, followup evaluation and additional activities.

The executive meeting is also an opportunity to discuss the business advantages for diversity and discuss how diversity will benefit the organization.

Once senior management is behind the initiative and understands the benefits, the next step is to actually introduce the training programs. These can take on a number of different shapes and sizes, varying from a half-day (which is generally too short) to three days (which is generally too long). The trend in training is to have shorter (one-day programs) and more interactive training sessions, keeping the amount of time a participant is absent from work to a minimum.

An interactive approach limits lecturing and encourages participation from the group, thus allowing the curriculum to be customized to the individual personalities and needs of those at the session. Integrating diversity into industry- or organization-specific case studies, role plays and small group activities brings the required level of practicality to a subject matter that is often referred to as “not a problem at my workplace.”

The participants and curriculum should be broken up into two different programs, valuing and managing diversity. The employee training would focus on the importance of valuing diversity, which addresses issues and strategies involved in working with people from diverse backgrounds. The managing diversity course looks at diversity from a management perspective, emphasizing feedback, staffing, interviewing and the basic principles and differences of managing in a diverse workplace.

Hopefully, if the training is delivered right, many in the room will begin to overcome their initial apprehension. Diversity training will no longer be perceived as punishment.

It is important to explain to trainees that diversity is not about political correctness nor is it just about race, ethnicity, religion and physical ability. Often ignored dimensions such as age and education should be included in the training discussions.

Not every participant will emerge espousing the virtues of diversity, but everybody will at least be more aware of how differences between people are played out within the organization and how those difference affect daily activities and the business itself.

Maintaining momentum

To successfully foster an inclusive environment, organizations must build on the training programs. There are a number of initiatives that an organization can undertake to maintain momentum developed in diversity training sessions.

These may include:

•standing diversity committees;

•“diversity days” (including potluck meals or celebrating a holiday);

•diversity mentoring;

•followup diversity sessions (shorter and less formal sessions to address specific situations); and

•recognition of diversity in the organization, such as in newsletters or internal Web sites.

Maintaining momentum is much easier than gaining it, so all training and human resources departments — depending on who is responsible for the diversity plan — should have followup activities in mind before designing and delivering training programs.

Most followup activities also don’t require a lot of time from employees, therefore keeping diversity on the agenda and in the corporate consciousness, can be done without becoming a burden on the resources of the organization.

Pulling it all together

Creating an inclusive work environment with today’s diverse population is essential to success, but it is not a one step, “Train ‘em and Leave ‘em” proposition.

Organizations must ensure that there is buy-in from the highest levels. This executive interest will promote the programs among the employees, thus making diversity an important issue, rather than a flavour of the month.

The training also needs to be engaging, interactive and relevant to the people taking part. Participants will always ask the obvious question, “What is in it for me?” If that question can’t be answered, the training won’t succeed.

After the training sessions there must be interesting followup programs. There is no need to hit employees over the head with the “d” word, but it is important that it remains on the training and human resources agenda. The added benefits of most followup programs are that they are not time or labour intensive.

There will always be obstacles to overcome when dealing with a sensitive area like diversity training and the promotion of an inclusive workplace, but once buy-in is achieved, the rest is just a matter of providing the best training and programs available. By ensuring quality programs, employees will follow the lead of management and understand the benefits of diversity in the workplace.

An inclusive work environment promotes retention, improves recruitment and increases productivity. It is simply a matter of getting there, which is sometimes easier said then done.

Adam Kaminsky is the development associate at MALKAM Cross-Cultural Training, a consulting and training company that helps organizations succeed in the global marketplace by leveraging their cultural and linguistic diversity. He can be reached at (613) 761-7440.

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