Some of the typical reasons diversity training does not work well in organizations are outlined below. If your organization’s initiative did not do as well as you expected, assess whether your training was affected by any of the following:
Poor Timing. The training may have come at a time when employees were preoccupied with more urgent priorities. Stress, because of downsizing and the accompanying fear of job loss, increased workload, or a specific conflict or negotiation with a union might have been much more critical. During such periods, staff is usually functioning at the survival level on Maslow’s hierarchy and diversity may not even be a blip on their radar screen, hence their irritation that time and resources are taken up with training.
Outside Intervention. If employees perceive that external forces such as a court order or a politician’s decree have prompted the training, they are apt to resist. They generally resent the ensuing training that they view as payment for others’ sins and see it as an instrument of their torture. They sometimes feel they are being sacrificed to meet objectives they do not necessarily agree with while their own needs continue to be ignored.
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Training Approach. Some of the backlash may be due to the training approach itself. If the initiative poses some as perpetrators and others as victims, there is apt to be defensiveness among those who feel blamed. All white males, for example, are not at the top of corporations. Many, working on shop floors and in offices across the country, feel just as misused and blocked by their organizations as do women and people of color. Many will react with defensiveness if they feel unjustly accused in a confrontational, "you’re the enemy" approach.
Affirmative Action Paradigm or a Narrow Definition of Diversity. If diversity is seen as the domain of a few groups, people of color and women, for example, everyone else may feel left out and view the initiative as being for others, not them. A broader definition that includes individual aspects such as educational level and parental status as well as organizational dimensions such as management status or division/department creates an umbrella that is big enough to cover everyone. In this framework, everyone’s issues would have a valued place. For example, both a white male hourly employee’s view that his input is not valued, and an immigrant’s perception that her accent has blocked her promotion, would be included among the issues to be addressed.
Once the reasons behind the backlash have been determined, you will be in a better position to move ahead. The following are strategies you might consider to rebuild credibility and generate support:
Work on systems obstacles first. Address some of the organizational barriers that you have discovered in your needs analysis. Creating a more flexible benefit or leave package, or changing the dress code, can be ways to acknowledge the different needs and preferences of staff. Opening the promotional pathway through job postings or mentoring for those who desire upward mobility are other examples of systems changes. Responding to staff’s real concerns before asking them to change through training can show real organizational commitment.
Get input from backlashers. Hold a focus group to listen to the views and issues of those who found fault with the training or who reject "diversity". Find out their concerns and needs. See if there are any ways the organization can respond to their issues or deal with their frustrations. Once they feel their own concerns have been addressed, they might open up to other diversity issues.
Get broader support. Create a diversity council that is representative of a diagonal cross section of employees to get a range of views and attitudes. Include staff who represent the resistors, those who are skeptical of anything called diversity. They can become the most powerful allies if they have buy-in. As informal opinion leaders, when they see diversity in a new light, they can influence others who have been resistant. They can also give critical input in planning future diversity interventions.
Explore offering "just in time" training and provide it in other formats. If additional knowledge and skills are needed, find ways to deliver it that do not rely on traditional training in a group setting. Perhaps one-on-one coaching to help managers deal with diversity challenges or interventions at a team meeting to help work groups overcome obstacles to effectiveness can be more relevant and specific ways to train with staff. This focuses and customizes training in an immediately applicable way.
You can turn backlash into a benefit when you use it as an opportunity for learning and then take what has been gained to create new credibility and commitment for your diversity intervention.
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