Two days before September 11, 2001, a North Carolina woman converted to Islam. A month later, she asked her employer for permission to wear a hijab, a religious head scarf, to work. After wearing the scarf for one day, she was asked to remove it because, she was told, it was frightening clients. Soon after, she was fired.
Although the employer denied any alleged discrimination, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission asserted that it had failed to accommodate the woman's religious beliefs and discharged her based on her religion. The situation ended up costing the company $35,000.
Since September 11, that sort of story has become almost commonplace. Take the case of the art museum accused of firing an employee because he was an Afghani Muslim. The lawsuit alleges that the man was ostracized by fellow employees and that another employee falsely accused him of being a terrorist.
The list goes on.
“Post-9/11, there were people who believed because we sort of ‘knew who did it,’ it was somehow OK to discriminate against people like them,” says Deena Pargman, principal of DP Pargman Consulting, Decatur, Ga. “That's not the case.”
Enter Diversity Training
“These incidents highlight the need in U.S. companies for diversity awareness and training, especially since September 11,” says Pargman.
“I've seen a thirst for understanding of Islam and Middle Eastern cultures,” says Mike Hyter, president and CEO of J. Howard & Associates, Boston, a multicultural consulting unit of Provant Inc. “Today, companies are asking themselves questions such as how to recognize Ramadan. This is something that no one considered before.”
Companies are also realizing they can no longer lump people into descriptive blocks, such as Hispanic or Asian. “Employees could be from Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico,” says Hyter, “They may all be considered Hispanic, but they're all very different.”
“We've been Americacentric for a long time,” he adds. “Now we have to look at issues like Cuban and Haitian refugees and the conflict in Venezuela and figure out how it fits into our business.”
The Bottom Dollar
While the tough economy has forced companies to cut back on overall training, diversity training hasn't suffered as intensely. Since 9/11, overall training budgets dropped by 30 percent, according to a study conducted by J. Howard & Associates. But diversity training and management budgets dropped by only about 15 percent.
A pilot study conducted by SCENDIS, an intellectual capital service provider specializing in high-risk workplace issues, found that three of the nine Fortune 500 companies it surveyed have increased their diversity budgets — one by 50 percent.
“Five or six years ago, there would have been a wholesale reduction on diversity training,” says Hyter. “But now a significant percentage of companies have embraced diversity as a strategic advantage and keep a healthy agenda regardless.”
Where there are cuts, they have coincided with overall budget cuts, such as travel. For example, instead of conducting diversity training off-site in small groups over the course of a year or more, companies are piggy-backing on other meetings.
“One of our clients wanted to send 3,000 employees through training, but they wanted to do it in three months, rather than two years,” says Hyter. The company already had a sales meeting scheduled that most of its employees would be attending. “So they added a day to the meeting for training.”
Diversity training needs to extend beyond the office and should address meetings as well. The senior executive team also needs to “walk the talk” when they represent the company, in or out of the office. If the president acts inappropriately, it could be construed as a blessing for other employees to do it.
“It all comes down to treating everyone with respect,” says Pargman.
In her experience in talking with discontented employees, the majority of issues usually boil down to disrespect.
“Most of the time, these things have been going on for a while,” she says. “The momentum builds. And rather than stir the pot, which most people don't like to do, they just leave the company.”
Want to start a diversity training program?
Do you have:
Documented organizational diversity policies and goals?
Well-qualified and experienced diversity professionals?
The appropriate type and length of training for the audience and material covered?
Does your program address:
Why management thinks diversity is important?
How changing demographics will have an impact on your organization?
What the benefits of diversity are?
How stereotypes are perpetuated?
How valuing diversity will increase your organization's innovation, productivity, and quality?
How to develop personal action plans?
How you will give attention to follow-up and support?
SOURCE: American Society for Training & Development, www.astd.org