By Leah Smiley
A relatively new high school math teacher, by the name of “J.J.”, pulled out a $5 bill in his third period class. He taped the $5 onto the white board and told the students that “someone was going to get the money if they made the right choices and took the right actions.” Everyone in the class participated in the lessons, showed respect, and waited for J.J. to hand over the $5. Nothing happened. J.J. issued the same challenge to fourth, fifth, sixth, and finally, seventh period classes. In the seventh period, one student said, “I’m going to just walk up there and take that $5 off the board.” But he did not. Another student, who was hearing impaired, walked up to the front of the classroom, took the $5 bill and put it in his pocket. J.J. congratulated him and said, “In this life, you have to have the courage to go and get what you want.” That simple lesson proved far more powerful than telling the students what they needed to do.
My daughter was in that class. And after she spent 20 minutes telling me all of the ways that J.J. inspired and motivated them to excel and achieve, I too, came to the conclusion that J.J. was on to something. Isn’t it interesting that J.J. took a subject that some students have negative feelings about, and turned it into a “rock star”?
In the corporate, education, nonprofit and government sectors, folks around the world hate diversity training. I’m just going to put it on the table: they hate it. Unequivocally. But let’s talk about why the mere mention of the word is detestable.
#1: The trainer regurgitates information that participants already know.
OK, if you did the same training session for 3 years in a row, it is pretty safe to say, “they got it.” Alternatively, just because the facilitator is new to the field, doesn’t mean that the employees are new to the diversity training experience.
This is where advanced diversity education comes in handy. The field of diversity and inclusion is so immense that you can talk about a different topic each day for an entire year and still have more to educate people about. Every year, Indiana State University holds a diversity retreat for its faculty, staff and community members. A few weeks ago, I did a training session about their competitors’ diversity efforts, as well as on diversity trends in higher education. It was a fascinating session for me, let alone very interesting for the participants because they contributed their observations, knowledge and backgrounds to the discussion.
#2: The trainer plays ‘games’ that are unrelated to work.
Years ago, I worked at a benefits consulting firm called CGI Consulting Group before it was purchased by Willis. I facilitated over 200 employee benefit meetings– giving workers the bad news: your benefits are changing, your costs are going up and you’re not getting a raise. My boss, who was the office comedian, taught me how to deliver the message so good that when I finished, employees said, “Thank you for such a good meeting!” At one company in Tennessee, things got ugly though. The employees were yelling, throwing things, and mad! It taught me one lesson– never to go back to Tennessee. I’m joking. When I talked to my boss about it however, he told me, “Here’s where you went wrong. You made light out of a very serious situation. You need to be able to discern when to tell jokes and when not to.”
I share this story to say that in many workplaces, diversity and inclusion is a very serious matter. Certainly, there are exercises that can drive points home but the greater issue is that those exercises must be connected to business goals and training outcomes. This brings me to my third and final point.
#3. The trainer is working to change the minds of his/her participants.
The Houston Chronicle published an article called, “The Purpose of Internal Training for Employees” by Shelagh Dillon. In it, the author asserts that, “the purpose of internal training is to create a motivated, skilled and effective workforce through which organizational goals are achieved.” The problem with most diversity training is that the facilitator is trying to change the minds of participants about diversity and inclusion, and he/she is not trying to change their skills. I believe that if you change someone’s skills, you will change their mind. But the emphasis has to move away from an individual focus toward addressing the bigger picture: how can we, as a cohesive unit, create more opportunity by achieving the organization’s goals? How can we stop contending against one another and vie against a much bigger threat: our external competitors, new technology, and other revolutionary changes within our industry? How can we advance our work with cultural knowledge, skills, and strategies for engaging the best talent and the most customers/students/constituents?
At the end of the day, I think we can all agree that diversity training is necessary. After all, if you get sued, that’s going to be one of the first questions: have you had training recently? But if we are going to get more employees excited about diversity training, we must do things differently– like J.J.
I would love to hear your suggestions about how to create better diversity training experiences.
Leah Smiley, CDE, is the President of the Society for Diversity. The #1 and largest professional association for diversity and inclusion. For more information about the Society for Diversity, log onto: http://www.societyfordiversity.org. For specific strategies on how to change your diversity training outcomes, get CDE (Certified Diversity Executive ) or CDP (Certified Diversity Professional) credentials from the Institute for Diversity Certification. Learn more at http://www.diversitycertification.org