Sensitivity Training Can Strike a Nerve

fforts to increase diversity in the federal workforce have been crowned with significant success, but now agencies are encountering new challenges in getting multicultural staffs to work together smoothly and effectively.
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Agencies are riding national demographic trends while doing their best to build a workforce that "looks more like America." Minority representation in the federal government rose from 26.7 percent in 1988 to 29.4 percent in 1998. That figure exceeded the proportion of minorities in the civilian labor force (26.4 percent), according to a recent Office of Personnel Management report on the Federal Equal Opportunity Recruitment Program.Hispanic representation is increasing but continues to lag behind that of other minority groups.

The trend is expected to continue. The Labor Department's 1999 report, "Futurework: Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century," predicts that by 2050, the number of Americans will increase by 50 percent and minorities will make up nearly half the population.

Immigration will account for almost two-thirds of the nation's growth. The number of older Americans is expected to more than double. One-quarter of all Americans will be Hispanic, and about one in 10 will be Asian or Pacific Islander. More women and people with disabilities will be in the workforce.

Getting more minorities onto the payroll is just a first step. The next challenge is breaking down the cultural and communication barriers to building successful teams from this new blend of employees. Federal managers must "make diversity an organizational advantage," according the Office of Personnel Management guide, "Building and Maintaining a Diverse and High Quality Workforce." This means tapping the broader experiences and talents of people with more diverse backgrounds in solving problems and fulfilling agency missions. To ensure these capabilities are unleashed, OPM has called upon agencies to:

  • Train employees in intercultural communication.
  • Provide supervisors and managers with leadership and diversity training.
  • Emphasize the benefits and rewards of a diverse workforce, which helps create a supportive work environment.

This emphasis on cultural sensitivity has spawned a cottage industry of diversity trainers who are ready to help agencies eliminate barriers. Bernie Smith, a former Army EEO official who now heads the Federal Facilitators Group of Falls Church, Va., says an ounce of prevention can help organizations avoid problems rooted in cross-cultural misunderstandings. Careful attention to friction arising from increased diversity is a must, Smith says."It's not only the traditional irritations [between] black and white or male and female," he says. "We're finding problems within ethnic groups, like Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans upset with each other, or a total ignorance of Islamic customs and practices."

Essential steps, Smith says, include teaching workers about the practices and interests of diverse groups in the workforce. Two-way communications between employees also are critical. Another vital but often overlooked measure is showing no tolerance for racial slurs and ethnic jokes. "They are the cause of much bad feeling and many resulting disputes," Smith cautions. "And high officials need to step in and take visible action when managers at any level are failing to confront such expressions of this type."

Unfortunately, diversity training can sometimes produce unintended consequences. Last spring, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency announced seminars in the Washington area "to create understanding, sensitivity and awareness of diversity issues and provide a forum for exchanging information and ideas." But the agency's plan backfired. Employees complained about condescending and one-sided objectives outlined in course literature, such as teaching "whites to learn how to be better allies with people of color in creating positive change."

The EPA course drew praise from many participants, but the agency has learned that sensitivities work both ways and well-intended ventures in diversity training can have reverse effects. Mauricio Velasquez, who heads the Diversity Training Group, a Reston, Va., consulting firm, laments that too often he has to rescue organizations whose good intentions went awry. "I am hired to come in and clean up" after other diversity trainers have polarized workforces, he says.

Velasquez says old school diversity training should be abandoned in favor of non-confrontational, practical, participant- centered, positive and future-oriented programs. His approach at agencies such as NASA, the Social Security Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology features employee input, senior management participation, establishment of diversity learning and resource centers, and development of communications and sensitivity skills. Most important, he says, raising cultural awareness should be part of a holistic, organization-wide approach to making a better workforce.

Is diversity training helping or hurting? The answer is both, which should motivate agency leaders to carefully select outside help and work closely with those consultants to fit diversity training into an overall performance improvement effort.


David Hornestay, a Washington consultant, served in government for more than 30 years, primarily in human resources and institutional management.
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