Annals of biz idiocy: Get ready for your five-figure "cultural audit"

Sensitivity training is now a $10 billion industry.


Suzy Hansen
June 16, 2000 1:59AM (UTC)

What's a company to do when its white employees start snubbing blacks in the boardroom?

The modern solution: Haul in "sensitivity" experts, and train employees to be touchy-feely about each other.

Teaching people how to remain inoffensive at work -- aka "sensitivity training" -- has flourished into a $10 billion annual industry, says a recent article in Forbes. Long considered a pragmatic alternative to affirmative action, the concept has been around since the 1970s. Now, 70 percent of major companies have corporate diversity programs, according to some estimates.

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Meanwhile, if you happened to be in the audience at one of Edwin Nichols' "cultural awareness" seminars, you might have been shocked -- and, well, a bit offended -- to hear him say whites "count and measure" their way to knowledge, while Asians "know through striving toward transcendence," whatever that means. And as for blacks, Latinos and Arabs -- Nichols says their "highest value lies in the interpersonal relationship among men."

He also reportedly told a group of federal employees: "We can't ask non-whites to maintain 'white' standards. If a pair of black employees arrives late for a meeting, it's not because they don't have the company's best interests in mind. They may have been chatting in the hallway, developing those personal relationships."

Robyn E. Blummer, a columnist at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, says what Nichols spews is "a bunch of racist drivel." "Training like this seems to me to be a sure-fire way to engender racial and gender antagonism and reinforce some of the very negative stereotypes that it was supposed to correct," she wrote in a column.

And Nichols doesn't come cheap. The p.c. guru reportedly charges $20,000 to $35,000 for a "cultural audit," or an assessment of a company's discriminatory practices and attitudes.

But with the proliferation of discrimination lawsuits in the workplace, corporations have no qualms about dishing out five figures to a guy like Nichols. At least that way, no one could accuse them of not trying to promote harmony.


Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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