The Talking Cure

In a misguided attempt to alleviate racial and sexual tensions, corporate America is turning the workplace into a giant therapy couch.

Topics: Paul Shirley,

As the nation struggled through its group therapy session on race last fall, courtesy of O.J. Simpson, Mark Fuhrman and Louis Farrakhan, I found myself wondering why corporate America didn’t have more wisdom to share, based on its decade-long experiment with diversity training, the booming mini-industry designed to cleanse the workplace of racism and sexism.

Two-thirds of big employers now run some kind of diversity program. From government agencies like the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration to firms including IBM, GE, AT&T and the New York Times, American employers have been rushing their workers into diversity training since 1987, when a Labor Department study projected that 85 percent of new workforce entries after the year 2000 would be women or minorities. Have these company-paid field trips to the front lines of race and gender conflict yielded a model for the nation?

Hardly. Never before have so many people been sharing their deep, dark feelings about race and sex, with so little positive impact. Diversity training is everywhere because it plays into our American predilection to talk our troubles to death, but do nothing about them. It reflects a laziness about change on both sides of the race and gender divide. Whites, and men, want to be instructed on how to treat women and other racial groups, instead of using common sense, curiosity and compassion to figure out how they want to be treated. And women and people of color are looking for a quick-fix answer to discomfort in the workplace, an alternative to the tiresome but necessary task of making clear how they expect to be treated. Perhaps most damaging, the solemn, moralistic tone of most trainings sends a destructive message — Diversity Is a Drag — rather than helping companies, and individuals, see the creativity that’s unleashed when cultures mix well.

While most criticism to date has come from conservatives and beleaguered white men, there’s a scathing critique to be made by advocates for women and racial minorities, in whose name such training is sold. “Training is becoming a substitute for dealing with the real issues that prevent women and minorities from succeeding,” says Aileen Hernandez, a former NOW president, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission director and veteran corporate trainer.

That became clear to me after I spent 18 months examining the ambitious diversity training program of a mid-sized California software maker, The Santa Cruz Operation, Inc. (SCO), for a Glamour magazine feature. A national diversity expert recommended the program as “a model of what these programs should be.” It began in a time of crisis: the firm’s founder and CEO, known for his wandering hands, was sued by four secretaries for sexual harassment. Diversity training was SCO’s answer to the public relations and morale crises that ensued.

To its credit, SCO set out to develop a diversity initiative that went beyond talk. It got 110 employees involved in diversity task forces, looking at how the firm could advance women by subsidizing childcare, increasing flextime for mothers, even recruit a woman for SCO’s white, male board of directors. But those ideas hit internal roadblocks and went nowhere. The centerpiece of the effort turned out to be what it usually is: diversity workshops for managers.

The workshop I attended was typical: middle managers squabbling about who’s to blame for race and gender inequities at the firm. The session got hot when a facilitator pointed out that all but one of the Fortune 500 CEOs are white men. A white manager I’ll call Tim erupted in anger.

“Do you think every white guy in America is going to be CEO?” he shouted. “Eighty to
90 percent of CEOs are Episcopalian; I’m Irish Catholic. The Irish had it rough here, too! Now I’m being categorized as a white guy!”
A woman from Human Resources I’ll call Rita responded in a soft voice, near tears. “Tim, how do I deal with the fact that in my department, everyone knows that the men are being promoted ahead of women who’ve been there longer? We don’t know why, except that all the men go golfing and sailing together, and make all the rules. And I’m watching good women leave the company. What should I do?”

Tim stared down at his tasseled loafers, uncomfortable. “Go to Human Resources,” he said, apparently forgetting that was the division she was complaining about. “I believe you, Rita, but I don’t think it’s about being a woman, it’s about being perceived as weak.”

The dramatic conflict went unresolved. But Rita returned to work to learn her frank
comments had been reported to her boss; Tim, by contrast, was within months promoted to director.

In another tense training moment, an accounting supervisor named Lynn went head to head over sexism with a human resources manager I’ll call Rick. Again, they argued to a draw. A few months later Lynn sued the firm, charging she was sexually harassed by a supervisor, and Rick was named in the suit for failing to address her complaint properly. Clearly diversity training didn’t help Lynn and Rick communicate about sexual harassment.

Not long after the training I attended, SCO’s initiative unraveled completely. Its co-director, Gail Garrow, resigned in anger, complaining the effort was just window dressing. Garrow claimed that she herself had been sexually harassed just before the lawsuit against SCO’s founder was filed, a charge the company denies. “We used the sexual harassment scandal to our benefit, and management used us, as damage control,” she says now. SCO’s affirmative action effort left untouched vast discrepancies between male and female managers’ salaries, Garrow charged, as well as a glass ceiling that meant only two of 19 vice presidents were women.

SCO’s juicy scandals make good reading, but is the outcome of its program typical?
Aileen Hernandez thinks its troubles are common in the field, thanks to the vexing paradox at the heart of diversity training. “To have a successful program, you need to have some diversity already — women and people of color who are ready to advance — and you need top management committed to advancing them,” Hernandez notes. “But if you have that, you probably don’t need these programs. And if you don’t, all the seminars in the world can’t make a difference.”

The truth is that, as the SCO debacle painfully demonstrated, corporate diversity programs are patronizing, quick-fix solutions to workplace tension. And they cause more backlash than positive change.

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