Monday, November 23, 2009

Corporate Diversity Training

My company has sent out a mandatory diversity training notice recently. It’s a web-based course with both narration and text, with a few quizzes thrown in to keep you awake. It probably wasn’t bad, as these things go. Despite the stilted dialog and acting, the scenarios were not wildly unrealistic, including situations like dating one’s supervisor (and then breaking up), or unwelcome jokes about one’s age or accent.

People have tended to joke and roll there eyes a little about this. It’s always annoying to have the mandatory training sessions imposed by HR, particularly when we’re busy and understaffed. It takes a conscious effort not to fall into the same habit myself, and I think this stuff is important! What’s a trifle odd about the experience was the clear cover-your-ass legal framework. For instance, the words discrimination, sexism and racism were never mentioned. Instead, the talk was about protected categories – gender, age, race, national origin, etc. Now, I understand why the company is doing this – they don’t want to be sued. I don’t really have a problem with that; after all, that’s what laws are for – a good strong reason to make companies do the right thing when they probably wouldn’t be bothered on their own.

Still, to discuss these issues without talking about the underlying issues is terribly superficial. For instance, one scenario had a boss commenting approvingly on a employee’s clothes. They did try to make the point about how of tone of voice and potential sexual suggestiveness can change a simple compliment (That’s a nice shirt) to something more problematic (Your shoulders look so broad in that suit). However, there was no mention of any reasons WHY many people don’t want their boss to focus on their appearance, merely a statement that many people don’t like it.

A further odd feature was the tendency to treat workplace discrimination as if it happens to everyone equally. And it just doesn’t. The above scenario took place between a female boss and a male subordinate. Now, it is a problem for a woman to focus on a man’s appearance at work, particularly when in a supervisory role. But let’s not kid ourselves – it happens far less often than the reverse. Let’s also remember that since our society sends so many messages in so many ways to women that they are valued mostly for their appearance, it’s frankly more damaging when this happens to women.

Both of these shortcomings will reduce the odds of someone who’s not already familiar with issues of bias and discrimination learning much from this training session. Now, my company probably doesn’t care – they just want to employees to know what not to do, so that we don’t get sued. Still, it seems like such an opportunity wasted.

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