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Training on Diversity

Article by: Nancy Tobler
October 8, 2014

When direct selling companies move into foreign markets, companies learn about cultural differences and similarities. However, an important component of every company, domestic or international, is diversity within the company as well as the distributors they serve nationally. We often want to treat the United States as if it is one culture. Although living in the U.S. creates some common perceptions and attitudes, the diversity within the U.S. continues to be extensive. The U.S. Census Bureau identifies by race and recent immigration status (although not everyone agrees with the categories or methods). From July 2012 to July 2013, approximately 850,000 immigrants came to the U.S. with the majority self-identifying as Asian (328,524); those listing Hispanic came in second (224,246). However, race is only one way to look at diversity. Diversity may include gender, religion, culture, sexual orientation, age, etc.

Typically, diversity training focuses on training company employees on how to be inclusive rather than exclusive. The creation of discrimination laws inspired much of our current diversity training. In 2010, the rate of workplace discrimination complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reached a new high of almost 100,000 (Bezrukova, Jehn, & Spell, 2012). However, avoiding discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits are only two reasons to include diversity training into continual training programs. The potential benefits associated with having employees that embraces diversity are an increase in positive social climate, an increase in diverse points of view, and a reduction in employee turnover.

Diversity training has several positive effects. The first benefit is a more positive attitude about the workplace and an improved social climate (Bezrukova, Jehn, & Spell, 2012). Many of us have experienced a hostile work environment. Even if the hostility is directed toward someone else, the workplace climate is like working in a vast frozen north. We do not dare to go outside without protection.

When I was 18, I worked for a local canning plant. I distinctly remember the bias between various subcultures within the plant. On the way to my car one day, after eight hours of stuffing beans into a can, I passed a few co-workers deeply involved in discussion. As I walked by, I overheard their conversation about the “faking” of the holocaust as a sympathy ploy by the Jewish people. I walked away from that nonsense as fast as possible and vowed to avoid any conversation focused on such topics. I now work with academics who are more educated to respect one another’s differences. This provides a far more positive workplace!

The second benefit of diversity training comes from learning to value varied points of view. Much of our work today is knowledge work. Few will be required to stuff beans into a can; rather, we work on issues such as how to design and use technology effectively or how to provide quality customer service. These problems require complex skills to solve and diverse points of view can provide better solution options.

Early in the 2000s, I did an analysis of the customer service department of a large network marketing company based in the United Kingdom. After listening to over 300 calls, I found that the perception of problems by upper management did not match the volume of calls. The company’s president was surprised by the findings, a reaction which supports the value of conducting such analysis before designing a training program. In speaking with upper management, a range of possible solutions became apparent. The U.K. manager had spent a considerable amount of time training his call center to address differences and yet demand respect for the customer service representative.

The third benefit stems from the first benefit. When employees work in a supportive climate, the resulting increased understanding of company practices means less turnover. When a company loses an employee with experience serving clients and customers, that loss of knowledge presents a void in the workforce. To calculate the cost of such a loss, take the salary and benefits of the employee who left and multiply it by two. A new employee typically takes a year to develop his or her own knowledge base. This learning curve means a drop in employee efficiency until the new person catches up to the former employee’s level of expertise.

Just like any complex topic, not every diversity training leads to a positive result. Some research suggests that learning about a different culture may actually increase prejudicial bias. Often, diversity training expects participants to assess their own behavior and attitudes for bias. For some people, this can be difficult. Those with strong beliefs sometimes find support for their prejudice upon learning more about cultural differences. When adding diversity training, company representatives need to carefully assess the needs of the organization and design the training to meet those needs in order to provide the most favorable outcome.

Bezrukova, K., Jehn, K. A., & Spell, C. S. (2012). Reviewing diversity training: Where we have been and where we should go.  Academy of Management Learning & Education, 11(2), 207-227.
Estimates of the Components of Resident Population Change by Race and Hispanic Origin for the United States: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2013. U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division. June 2014.
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Nancy Tobler

Nancy Tobler has a PhD in communication from the University of Utah. She specializes in research on how organizations change,...

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