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Awareness of diversity in the workplace is on the rise but so is a backlash to some of the issues it raises. In fact, negative reactions to diversity issues are widespread enough to make the headlines.

This Newsweek article is typical: "A Crisis of Shattered Dreams: Decades of Racial Progress Have Given Way to Growing Resentment on Both Sides of the Color Line" (May 6, 1991). And, U.S. News and World Report says, "America's Youthful Bigots: Schools Are Experiencing a Startling Rise in Hateful Violence" (May 7, 1990).

The biggest challenge facing diversity trainers today is how to handle backlash. A good place to start is to review some of the arguments that people make to explain why backlash occurs. We have observed the following factors and perceptions:

* Deep-seated biases and prejudices are emerging as a reaction to fast-paced social change.

* Lack of jobs and increased competition for resources create what some people see as a threatening environment.

* Race and gender issues are used increasingly as a political football.

* Sensationalistic journalism can create scapegoats and highlight stereotypes.

* People tend to feel comfortable with people who are similar to them and uncomfortable with those who are different.

* Some people see political correctness as a direct threat to First Amendment rights.

* The political-correctness movement has created a legal and social minefield. Well-intentioned people feel that they must walk on eggshells around those who are different, and that if they make a mistake, their good intentions will not be recognized.

* People confuse such terms as political correctness, diversity, multiculturalism, pluralism, equal employment opportunity (EEO), and affirmative action.

* Some people believe that a focus on multiculturalism will dissolve the unity of the United States.

* Affirmative action and EEO programs have been poorly implemented. People who are not considered for a job or promotion because of affirmative action cry reverse discrimination, and many people who are hired through affirmative action feel stigmatized.

* Some whites and males are tired of being made to feel guilty in every discussion of diversity. They are tired of being cast as the oppressors.

Looking back, it is easy to see the seeds of backlash in the kind of affirmative action training that targeted white men's attitudes toward women and minorities. The intention of affirmative action training - to eradicate prejudices that kept women and minorities from succeeding once they were hired - was good. But people presumed that women and minorities would already know about biases and prejudices, so white men were the focus of the awareness training - training that was often conducted by women and minorities.

Many people still believe that the point of diversity training is to change white men's attitudes. Not surprisingly, training that appeared to beat up on men bred resentment, fear, and eventually backlash - and not just from white men. "By focusing attention solely on the issues and concerns of minorities and women, those training programs were in effect discounting and devaluing those in the non-EEO and protected classes," says Barbara Walker, vice-president of human resources sources at the University of Cincinnati. "This approach reinforced the |us versus them' view of the work, which made everybody feel victimized and ... disempowered."

Many people argue now that the definition of diversity should be much broader than just race and gender. Authors Julie O'Mara and David Jamieson suggest in their book Managing Workforce 2000, that a definition of diversity should include such differences as age, educational background, and values. A more inclusive definition acknowledges that many differences affect human interaction at work. An engineer, for instance, probably works differently with people than a salesperson does.

Broadening the approach could have another effect. People who are tired of what they see as a blame and guilt approach may now find diversity training more palatable. And skills required to deal effectively with diversity will result in better managers for all employees.

The downside of this approach is that some people may think that a broader definition of diversity could water down the training so much that the real issues would not be addressed. Champions of those issues might create their own backlash.

A broader definition of diversity necessitates a close examination of who is doing the diversity training and who should be doing it. The common practice has been to use women and minorities as diversity trainers because of their stake in the issues. A more inclusive definition of diversity calls for a broader range of diversity among trainers. That may include the presence of more white males, as well as people over sixty, people without college degrees, and people who have physical disabilities. Unfortunately, the paradigm shift in diversity work may be happening more rapidly than the shift in the population that is conducting the training.

Any field that has been dominated by a particular sector of the population is bound to have evolved a culture. Those doing diversity work - mainly women and minorities - have a culture that might be hard for an outsider to break into. They are likely to be suspicious of the motives and sincerity of white males, as well as uncomfortable with a new approach or style. But a lack of white males on the diversity training team can send participants the wrong message - that diversity work is still only about women and minorities. In order to combat the fear and resentment that plagues diversity training now, training providers should be proactive in attracting, mentoring, and supporting nontraditional groups in doing diversity work.

The issue goes beyond race or gender. An incompetent or unqualified practitioner can create a backlash too. Being gung-ho about the issue is not good enough. A trainer may have good intentions but still may not possess the skill or expertise to launch an effective diversity program.

Dealing with the backlash of diversity requires qualities beyond familiarity with diversity issues. Diversity trainers have to be capable of implementing successful training in the face of resistance. They need to have a handle on their own attitudes toward diversity so that their personal feelings do not influence their training. A trainer who is frustrated by a white-dominated system, for example, might react in a hostile, flippant, or patronizing way to a white trainee's complaints about reverse discrimination. Such a reaction from the trainer reestablishes diversity as an us versus them issue.

Preventing backlash. In many cases, the same companies that have handled EEO and affirmative action issues poorly in the past will probably struggle with the complexities and potential pitfalls of diversity. All three issues are linked; failure to successfully manage any of the three can affect success in the others.

In a recent case, we encountered a trainee who maligned the affirmative action and diversity programs in her company. Positions for technical specialists had not been filled, she reported, because they were targeted for women; no "appropriate" candidates had come forward. Frustrated by the overload that the unfilled positions placed on her, the woman resented affirmative action and convinced many of her peers that working on diversity issues would do no good. Some of her colleagues took her words as evidence that diversity work was not helpful or wanted - even by those it was intended to help.

If an organization really values diversity, its affirmative action programs may not need to target particular jobs for women or minorities. To change an organization's mindset requires giving managers a broad, open definition of job requirements and the ways in which jobs can be accomplished. Managers need to recognize and understand their own biases and must have the motivation and resources to create a truly diverse applicant pool.

Diversity does not happen by accident. The propensity in our society is for sameness and familiarity. In one organization, an all-male work team admitted openly that it had disqualified a female job candidate on the ground that she, as a woman, would not fit in. The team assumed that only another person like the team's members would help create the cohesion that was critical to meeting the team's work goals.

Diversity training can get to the heart of such discriminatory assumptions. Some managers say that the laws and programs surrounding EEO and affirmative action can create obstacles to valuing diversity. Chris Chen, of TRW's Space and Defense Sector, notes that "Today's interpretations of employment laws mitigate a firm's ability to recognize differences between employee groups. Corporations can't manage what they aren't supposed to notice." EEO laws and policies generally mandate that companies cannot treat people unequally because of race, gender, and so on. For example according to EEOC's Sex Discrimination Guidelines, "The principle of nondiscrimination requires that individuals be considered on the basis of individual capacities and not on the basis of any characteristics generally attributed to the group."

Diversity training proposes that managers should recognize differences and not treat everyone the same. Chen suggests that "companies that institute diversity training having the best of intentions still may find themselves guilty of discriminatory practices." Does this paradox created by the seemingly conflicting goals to EEO and diversity present a real dilemma? We do not think so. Similar seemingly contradictory messages exist in our culture without causing problems. Doctors, for example, cannot refuse to treat patients on the grounds of their differences. Yet, they are expected to study and treat each patient differently.

We believe that diversity, EEP, and affirmative action present no more of a complex paradox. Organizations can avoid that source of blacklash by being clear in their understanding of diversity and precise in their expectations of employee behavior in such a challenging work force.

Diversity programs have traditionally come out of human resources or training departments. That positioning leads organizations to approach the programs in several ways. Some see the work as an intervention - a way of managing the legal risk associated with a diverse work force. Other look at diversity programs as the source of a skill set that people can recall and apply as needed. Still other organizations regard diversity work as an attempt to be socially responsible.

Where diversity training is positioned can determine a program's potential to create or mitigate backlash. Positioning affects the program's ability to secure resources, command attention, and focus organizational efforts. Support for diversity is more than just doing the right thing. Many organizations see it as a way to do business in a world where valuing differences has replaced assimilating as a goal of many groups and individuals.

Many organizations are redefining and repositioning the role of diversity. They are taking it into account in business strategies, long-range planning, and management approaches. This repositioning may lessen backlash.

Diversity training has a better chance of not provoking backlash if the following steps are taken:

Get management support. Getting managers to commit to diversity training may require special training for them. Release a statement from senior managers showing their commitment. A visible show of commitment, such as having a senior manager kick off the training program, also helps.

Involve employees in the design of the program. Assess people's feelings about diversity. Determine what issues the employees believe are important. Acknowledge backlash and its causes. This achieves two objectives. First, it identifies the issues and attitudes of your audience. Second, the audience is more likely to feel involved and vested in the process.

Work from an inclusive definition of diversity. A broad definition of diversity invites participation and lowers resistance. It allows people to move beyond a particular political agenda. It empowers more people to do the work and avoids contradictions later on.

Use qualified diversity training professionals. Whether your diversity trainers are in-house or consultants, make sure they are competent facilitators who have a good information base, reflect diversity (including white males), and make good role models. Make sure they understand the dynamics of backlash. Do not assume they are ready.

Acknowledge resistance. Do not downplay or ignore it. If you do, it can sabotage the outcome of the training. Allow people to respond and express their feelings, including hostility, skepticism, and enthusiasm. Avoid becoming defensive. A good trainer is adept enough to use the resistance as a vehicle for learning.

Let experience be the teacher. Create opportunities for experimental learning; follow up with reflection and discussion. You will empower participants to direct their learning to where it is most needed. If they are allowed to draw their own conclusions, they will retain more.

Affirm the value of each person's experience and viewpoint. Acknowledge good intentions even while pointing out behaviors that create problems.

Value sameness. Remember that experiences of sameness and difference both play an important part in identity development. Do not fall into the trap of devaluing sameness in an attempt to value diversity.

Put an end to political correctness policing. Encouraging people to pay lip service to a politically correct agenda does not qualify as effective diversity work. Such an approach only increases cynicism and backlash toward diversity work and creates distrust between groups.

Be clear on business connections. Make sure that real-time applications to the workplace are an integral part of the training program. Be prepared to address corporate culture issues and communicate management's expectations.

Laugh, smile, and enjoy. Diversity training is serious work. Having fun can restore balance, energize a group, reduce tension, and help give diversity a good reputation.

Follow up. Support and reward those who incorporate a diversity mindset into their jobs and who use diversity to achieve organizational goals.

Co-facilitate a group with someone who is visibly. different from you. This increases the chances for dealing with resistance and avoiding backlash. While one trainer engages participants, the other can objectively assess the response and provide intervention as needed. Two facilitators can model effective behavior related to differences.

Create an open atmosphere. Make sure participants know it is okay to discuss topics that people normally shy away from. Such issues might include reverse discrimination, frustration with EEO policies, or even a discussion with a person confined to a wheelchair about what his or her life is like.

Keep up with new development in diversity, training. Do not assume that a successful program designed two years ago is addressing current issues. Outdated programs can cause backlash.

Integrate special topics. If you are delivering programs on special-interest topics (for example, Hispanic heritage or gay awareness) be sure they are integrated into an overall approach to diversity. Backlash comes from groups that do not feel included when a single topic becomes the entire program.

Final challenge. The focus on differences will continue to grow as demographic changes bring even more diversity into the work force and the marketplace. As one group emphasizes its unique background or heritage, others will want to articulate their own uniqueness, and more training professionals will face the challenge of dealing with backlash.

Organizations that learn to use diversity as an asset will stride ahead of those that do not. The payoff will be in productivity, quality, flexibility, and innovation. Organizations that do not respect, value, and use individual differences will continue to be faced with discrimination and harassment lawsuits, low morale, high recruitment costs, high turnover, and a lack of creativity. Organizations that have experienced sexual harassment or discrimination lawsuits have a special need to create or reestablish trust - a sense of "we." Otherwise, the atmosphere created by legal proceedings can cause backlash and disrupt productivity for years.

The stakes are also high for organizations that are already providing diversity training. Many existing diversity programs may foster backlash. At the least, that backlash can kill a program. It can even lead to organizational regression in relation to the goals that the program was set up to address. Conscious awareness and management of backlash is critical. The challenges of diversity and backlash are not likely to go away by themselves. Unless organizations take action now, their futures may be threatened.

Michael Mobley is an organizational and management development consultant, 24050 South East Stark Street, Suite 215, Gresham, OR 97030. Tamara Payne is principal consultant for Tamara Payne and Associates, Box 228, Princeton, MA 01541.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mobley, Michael; Payne, Tamara
Publication:Security Management
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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