Delivering Effective Strategic Diversity Management Education

The Business Case for Diversity Management Education

If you want to know what the business case is for diversity education ask the leaders of any organization. For eight months I worked with the officers of a major transportation organization to develop a strategic diversity management plan. This gave me a good comprehension of the organizational mission and goals and the methodologies used to achieve them. During an executive diversity retreat it was established that the organization wanted to attract and retain women and people of color throughout the ranks of the company. It was also agreed that in order to maintain a leadership position in any industry customers needed to see themselves reflected within organizations – at all levels. Those objectives would not be possible without the implicit and informed support of leadership. In order to support the established business case for strategic diversity and inclusion management it was imperative that the sessions help participants understand:

  • Their responsibilities regarding diversity and inclusion management
  • How developing and maintaining a diverse and inclusive environment supports the
    company’s mission and maintains and increases market share
  • How increasing one’s cultural competency would make one a more effective leader
  • How succession planning must include those who do not necessarily look or more
    importantly, think like the current leadership

Diversity Councils

One of the strategies employed to advance diversity awareness in the organization is volunteer employee Diversity Councils (DCs). These DCs, unlike affinity groups, do not focus on individual protected classes, but include a diverse range of employees. The members are also selected to represent as many job titles and locations as possible. Customized education is developed and delivered to the DC members over the course of a three day period and includes events aimed at increasing the members’ cultural competency as well as team building. The role of the diversity council members is to act as diversity ambassadors throughout the organization. The members also develop project ideas and present proposals of those ideas to the Diversity Steering Committee. The test for approval of a project is that it must support and advance the diversity mission and goals as well as the organizational mission and objectives. This is a great tool for developing the diversity council members’ time management, project planning and presentation skills.

I mention the Diversity Councils to share one of the strategies that we encourage our leadership to employ in order to meet their Diversity MBOs (Management by Objectives) which are required of all managerial employees. One segment of the session is devoted to helping the leaders achieve 100% on their MBOs. They can do this by partnering with their Diversity Council, participating in diversity related projects and events, and supporting employees interested in volunteering for the DCs. Offering these strategies to participants eases some of the pressure that managers may feel regarding their roles as leaders of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Cultural Co-mentoring

Another strategy I share with participants is co-mentoring as a method for increasing their own cultural competency. I ask them to consider participating in a mutual mentoring initiative where both participants benefit by learning from the other. I recommend that the leaders co-mentor an employee from a culture other than their own in order to learn more about that culture while sharing ‘insider’ information about the corporate culture with that employee. These co-mentoring relationships should be confidential, have a finite time frame and very clear, pre-set written parameters.

I suggest providing cultural competency sessions for the organization. One example would be to conduct a webinar on the Muslim faith. Customers are increasingly from cultures that may be unfamiliar and I propose regularly scheduled webinars to increase the cultural competency of employees. We discuss how even if one’s responsibilities are limited to a specific region, the communities within that region are likely to continue to become increasingly diverse with time. We discuss market share and how organizations with a high cultural competency or I.Q. will likely hold a large share of their respective market. It is helpful to remind the participants that we each have varying levels of competency in various subjects. I, for example, have a limited knowledge of computers, but a very high cultural competency. Participants are not asked to become diversity experts, but are encouraged to contact one if they have a diversity related question, and to feel comfortable doing so. One of the roles I play is that of translator, not linguistically, but culturally.

Overview of the Course

My challenge was to develop and deliver effective diversity management education for the leadership of the two corporate divisions which make up my clients. This education was to be provided for approximately 240 individuals within a six week period at minimal cost to the organization. I developed a customized module specifically for officers, directors and managers called Leading Diversity Management.

The module consists of five hours of interactive education. All participants complete an introductory 30 minute computer-based education module on diversity prior to attending the interactive session. The intent is to assure that participants have at least a basic understanding of diversity concepts and vocabulary prior to experiencing in-depth education on the subject.

I have always believed that effective diversity education must be interactive. For years I designed and facilitated EEO education for the City of New York and New York University. That experience taught me that it is critical to find the junction of theory and practical application. It was at this junction that participants could experience competency growth. Too often, participants in diversity education sessions are not challenged to understand the thinking behind diversity theory. On the other hand, they need to be understood: who are they, what do they do for the organization, what is their educational background, and what is their cultural competency level? I begin the educational process with respect for all of the participants, some of whom are only present because it is mandatory. I have walked into many training rooms and been met with arms crossed tightly over the chests of participants. I recommend introducing yourself to each person who arrives early, even though you will do introductions during the session. This helps break down the “us and them mentality” that can haunt diversity education sessions.

Among the participants, 80% of the leadership began as part-time, hourly workers, primarily dock workers, loading shipments onto trucks. Many of them advanced through the ranks as drivers (both local and long distance). These leaders are predominantly white males. Initially, I spent several months getting to know what their responsibilities are. I drove along with a local driver during his daily deliveries. I visited several facilities and spoke with employees in all job titles. I had many discussions with officers, managers and employees on their perceptions about diversity and inclusion. This has given me a good understanding of the organizational culture, its history and its cultural competency. The ice breaker that I use is a diversity bingo game that I designed to test and stretch the cultural competency of the participants. This leads to an effective discussion on cultural competency and how we learn about each other.

How to Lead the Session

A key to effective diversity management education is helping the participants to understand and appreciate ‘what is in it for them’. I lead them through various exercises intended to help them see how creating and retaining an inclusive rather than a tolerant, organizational environment really does help the bottom line. I share best diversity practices of Fortune 50 companies to reinforce the fact that diversity is good business and how it will help them to get and keep customers. I share how retaining employees of color and women can save the organization many thousands of dollars and how we must provide an inclusive environment if we really want to retain these valuable individuals. We also examine the incredible value intrinsic to a diversity of ideas.

It is critical to get participants to understand the distinctions between diversity and affirmative action. Many myths persist among employees about quotas and the hiring of women and people of color, regardless of ability, in order to meet those quotas. I spend a good amount of time dispelling these myths. It is imperative during this discussion to allow the participants to express their beliefs and to facilitate an exercise that will help them to experience an intuitive realization on their own. It is not uncommon for a participant to proudly state how we should encourage tolerance in the workplace. In response, I will usually stand very close to a random participant and state through clenched teeth, “My job requires me to tolerate Betty.” I check my watch several times during the course of a minute and glance at Betty periodically with a helpless expression. When I step away I exhale and express comic relief over my release from the difficult task of tolerance. Then we are able to begin a discussion on the difference between tolerance and inclusion.

The Use of Self as a Learning Tool

Facilitating an appreciation of inclusion requires expanding the participants’ understanding of what inclusion means. We examine how multiple perspectives can be invaluable when it comes to solving problems. Then I watch the light bulbs go on around the room. We talk about how diversity is certainly about gender and race and ethnicity, but how it is about so much more. I am half Puerto Rican and half WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), look vaguely Mediterranean and use my married name which is British. People never see me as a person of color when they first meet me. I use my background as a teaching tool. We discuss how difference is not always visibly obvious. This exercise invariably results in some participants questioning their perceptions and I follow this with a small group exercise where they decide what characteristics influence one’s ability to successfully do one’s job. The characteristics range from personality and education to race, gender and age. They are asked to rank each characteristic. Each group conducts this exercise for a distinct job title, from dock worker to CEO. The ensuing discussions are wonderful!

We discuss the impact of having a foreign accent on various job functions. I ask them about subordinates who might be great employees, but are being held back because they cannot be easily understood in English. I ask how many of them are offering tuition reimbursement to employees who take English speaking or accent reduction classes. No hands go up. Then I ask them how many of their subordinates are reimbursed for undergraduate studies in marketing, accounting and other fields, as well as seminars on time management or team building. All of the hands go up. Several participants have expressed anxiety about recommending that an employee take English classes. They were afraid that employees would be insulted by this recommendation. As managers, they can help employees to develop, keeping in mind that one of the organizational goals is to retain and promote from within. I share how my father suffered as a result of having a heavy Spanish accent and how grateful he would have been for classes. As diversity practitioners it is part of our role to offer solutions, not add to the burdens of organizational leaders. At the end of this discussion, the sigh of relief that fills the room is palpable.

Real-life Examples

Providing actual workplace examples of the challenges of managing diversity is incredibly effective. In the transportation industry, many of the job titles have physical requirements, so participants really open up when asked about issues surrounding age. Age is particularly sensitive when considering the physical requirements of dock workers or drivers. On one hand, managers value the knowledge and thoughtfulness of older employees on the other; they rely on the physical ability of younger workers for heavier lifting. One way that I challenge some pre-conceived notions about age is to ask who participants would rather have working on the dock, Arnold Schwarzenegger at 45 or Prince at 20? Unanimously, the participants vote for Arnold!

Assessment of the Course

At the end of each session, participants fill-out a confidential commitment card outlining how they will advance diversity in the workplace. They seal the card in an envelope and we mail them the cards two weeks later. I have received dozens of communications from participants on the day that they receive the card in the mail. The day following each session I send the participants an email containing my power point, several related articles and the dates of upcoming diversity meetings and events. I also send out a monthly diversity communication and three of the participants have already submitted diversity ‘stories’ for this publication.

Since facilitating the Leading Diversity Management sessions, several managers have reached out to me to schedule English speaking classes for employees, to learn more about co-mentoring opportunities, to attend Diversity Council meetings, to recommend employees for their Diversity Council and find out about additional educational opportunities relating to diversity. Many participants have told me how pleased they were after completing the education as they had only participated in the sessions because they had to. The average rating the ‘graduates’ have given the module is 9.6 out of 10.

Receiving such high ratings from participants not only lets us know that we are on the right track in terms of the education we are providing, but also makes clear the need to meet participants where they are, with a knowledge and respect for what they bring to the educational process. I have learned that these leaders are hungry for knowledge and accurate, reliable information. What an excellent basis for a partnership striving to lead strategic diversity and inclusion management!

Wendy Willow Wark is a Diversity Manager with a Fortune 50 transportation company where she is responsible for strategic diversity management of 20,000 employees across the country.

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