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

Sensitivity training is now a $10 billion industry.

By Suzy Hansen

Published June 15, 2000 9:59PM (EDT)

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.

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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