Weekly sessions foster open communication, interaction among staff
Human Resources Manager, APWA
Earlier this year, APWA implemented its own take on diversity awareness training in its Kansas City headquarters office. However, "training" does not adequately describe the approach used. Instead, time is dedicated for honest and informal discussions on particular aspects of diversity during weekly staff meetings. Discussions began as a method to enhance diversity awareness and to emphasize how such differences among staff can be fully appreciated for what they bring to work. Conversations have been engaging and genuine. Building trust and team spirit has occurred since the effort to examine issues supporting diversity awareness began. Consequently, a more productive and enjoyable work environment has materialized. Numerous diversity articles and reports profess that these are exactly the kinds of results to expect.
The argument for diversity is strong and enormous support is evident from lengthy case studies to simple reason. Diversity awareness is essential for the continued vitality of an organization in a global economy, and particularly as trends predict significant increases in diversified workforces. In order to create a strong and resilient workforce, employers must attract and retain employees who are qualified, motivated, and dedicated to the goals of the organization. Such an outcome is produced in a work environment that is positive, nurturing, and sensitive to diversity.
Admittedly, it is early for APWA to fully evaluate the effectiveness of its diversity sessions, but hopeful signs of positive outcomes are already emerging. For example, staff turnover experienced a surprising decline for the first time in several years since the sessions began. However, the effectiveness of any training program must be continuously measured and evaluated. APWA has identified the following components that have contributed to the continued success of its program.
1. The leadership is actively involved. Top management has accepted personal responsibility in delivering the message that APWA is committed to the importance of diversity as a workforce issue. This is important since the leadership holds a greater capacity to mold organizational culture with direct endorsement and participation. In doing so, management confirms its commitment to the organization.
For example, Kaye Sullivan, Deputy Executive Director, personally conducted the first several sessions at APWA's Kansas City office. Not only did she conduct these sessions, but she also initiated the efforts in the Kansas City office. Her lead and approach provided a foundation. Goals were clearly defined and tied to the organizational mission. Her active involvement opened doors of communication and encouraged interaction. Staff quickly began to share personal experiences. Opposing views may be evident at times, but discussions have maintained a level of respect and appreciation among staff-the only true "ground rule." The timing also plays a role in success, as these efforts were not prompted by incidents signaling problems with acceptance of diversity issues.
2. Diversity is broadly defined and all-inclusive. APWA has not limited its diversity focus to the legally-protected classifications such as gender, age, race, ethnicity, etc. Rather, APWA strives to assure that diversity includes all employees with discussions about differences such as generational identity, location of residence, level of education, communication styles, personality, skill sets, etc. The promotion of diversity is not an affirmative action or an equal opportunity program. APWA views this diversity initiative as supporting the values of all individuals-their differing perspectives and full inclusion into the workplace.
3. The responsibility is shared. The commitment to diversity is not a job belonging to one person or department. Staff in various positions and departments guide APWA diversity efforts and discussions. All employees are encouraged to lead a session on a topic of their choice or by using a favorite resource. For example, Lee Hawkins, Director of Member Services, contributed his diversity expertise from a previously held position while guiding several lively discussions. During another session, Kevin Clark, Editor, brought several issues of the APWA Reporter for discussion to illustrate a historical perception of women within APWA. Tracy Alfaro, Receptionist & Administrative Clerk, has also championed the cause for diversity by researching topics to include in educational messages distributed to staff. Regardless of who leads the effort, full participation (even from the quietest employees) drives the success.
4. The delivery is repeated and the format is varied. Diversity awareness training cannot be effective if it is conducted on an annual basis. It should be entrenched within an organization throughout every function, every facet. The session formats have also played an important role in success. The resources have been excellent and the formats have encouraged interaction without the use of role-playing or exercises, which can be a real turn-off to some people. APWA tries to listen to employees in order to allow feedback to guide program content and design. Losing the interest of employees will hinder the process of strengthening a commitment to diversity. APWA has already experimented with a few formats and prepares for the next change in the course of action in support of diversity efforts.
The following are some examples of varied sessions and delivery:
5. Resistance is carefully handled. Little resistance by staff has occurred at APWA. The majority of employees have expressed appreciation for these sessions and indicated that they look forward to them. However, organizations must be prepared to evaluate the distinctions between differing views, resistance, and intolerance. If open communication is encouraged, then employees may feel comfortable sharing information that may be perceived in a range as wide as vulnerable and supportive to skeptical and hostile. For example, a few sessions at APWA have focused on generational differences. During one of these sessions, staff pointed out that some of the materials were offensive due to the evidence of stereotyping behavior. The discussion did not end sourly; rather, it heightened awareness. A defensive reaction would have produced damaging results. The perception of a reprimand creates distrust and hinders efforts if "political correctness" overtakes the opportunity to learn from one another.
"I have really looked forward to our staff meetings knowing that they will end in insightful and honest discussions. Our diversity "sharing" has been invaluable to me as it has given me new perspective. It's been an incredible way to get to know co-workers unlike any working experience I've had previously. I've taken so much away with me and have found myself recently involved in similar discussions outside of work, obviously fueled by stories I've heard during these sessions. I think it has helped us all become less quick to judge others and has created a greater understanding." - Diana Forbes, Meetings Coordinator
The cost of intolerance in the workplace is like a deadly virus. The acceptance of differing views is the point of diversity awareness, but there is no room for discrimination and mistreatment of employees and customers.
Time is precious, but that has been the only cost to APWA for its diversity initiatives in Kansas City. Morale suffers when employees feel unappreciated for their contributions, unvalued, and excluded as individuals. With the cost of turnover, lost productivity due to inter-group conflicts, and potential employment lawsuits, how can an organization afford not to support the efforts of diversity?
To contact Susan Gray, please call (816) 472-6100 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following websites provide excellent sources of material on diversity initiatives: