Workforce Diversity: Choices In Diversity Training Programs & Dealing With Resistance To Diversity – Brief Article

H. B. Karp

Currently, and over the past few years, diversity has become a favorite discussion topic in business, academia, and government. Moreover, diversity has become a buzzword in the media when focusing on the future of America. Wherever one looks, diversity is becoming more and more popular when describing the American workforce. According to Nobile (1997), diversity is one of the greatest concern and one of the top ten legal issues that face HR professionals today. The Hudson Institute’s report Workforce 2000 made diversity a household word in companies across the United States, and enlightened organizations have became even more concerned with fairness in the workplace (Karp and Sutton, 1993). Diversity training programs were designed to better the relationship among people who work together. However, despite the best intentions, some diversity training programs produces the opposite effect. This paper will explain the necessary steps needed to develop more effective diversity training programs that reflects the values of the organization and the people who make it up. Effective training programs require choices between alternatives such as individual vs. group, behavior vs. attitude, and victim vs. survivor among others. These choices must be explained before imposing a set of values about how people should behave and react to other people.

Diversity, while always an important topic for HR Managers, is fast becoming one of the more critical ones and one that seems to draw ever increasing interest and controversy. The moral and legal imperatives that have come out of the 1964 and 1991 Civil Rights Acts are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. According to Nobile (1977) diversity is one of the greatest concerns and one of the top legal issues that face HR professionals today. The Hudson Institute’s report “Workforce 2000” (1987) made diversity a household word in organizations across the country, and enlightened organizations have become even more concerned about fairness in the workplace (Karp & Sutton, 1993). Along with real concerns about what is right and what is wrong; what is legal and what is illegal; we now must consider what is pragmatic and what is naively idealistic, as well.

Although the concern with diversity in the workplace has been progressing for a reasonably long time, several precipitating events have brought the issue to national awareness with a concomitant demand that change be made quickly.

The Anita Hill affair of 1992, the Tailgate scandal of 1991, and the Citadel Academy issue of admitting female cadets in 1990’S are but three examples of diversity issues that made national headlines and with the increased awareness, demands for quick and decisive change about how people will be dealt with in a civilized society. The result of this has been an almost manic drive to increase training around diversity issues in most large corporations and government agencies. In looking to increase the effectiveness and acceptability of diversity training programs, two broad areas need to be considered. The first is choices in how programs are currently being developed and delivered, and the second is how resistance to the training is being handled.

Developing and Delivering the Programs

Most of the evolving training programs are usually dominated by one of two basic themes. The first deals with increasing managers’ awareness of the legal and policy aspects of diversity. The second approach is focused on increasing the straight, white, American males’ (SWAM’s) sensitivity to the concerns of people in groups different from their own. This is frequently done by attempting to heighten the SWAMs’ awareness of what it is like to be misunderstood, undervalued, and discriminated against, at work.

The major problem with many of the system wide programs is that they are unitary in nature, many with an almost dogmatic approach to the training. What is forgotten in the rush to solution is that there are choices to be made concerning the content and delivery of any diversity training program, just as there are in any type of training. The more thought that is put into tailoring the design and delivery of the program to the unique population of your organization, the higher the probability that the message will be well received with minimal resistance. As a matter of fact, responding to the differences in training groups and making the right choices to individualize the program to that specific group, is what draws the line between training, which is what we are advocating, and indoctrination, which for the most part, is what is going on.

Whether you are an HR or external trainer who designs and delivers diversity programs; or, you are an HR manager who is accountable for selecting internal or external diversity training programs; or, you are a line manager who sends people to these programs, you would do well to consider the following choices and make your preferences known. As you read this, please keep in mind that we are not offering another set of “shoulds” to replace your current ones. We are suggesting only that you consciously choose how you address each question. The specific choice is of secondary importance.

Choice #1 Who Conducts The Training?

Current Practice: Most programs are currently targeting SWAMs since they are, by far, the dominant group of managers in the greatest number of organizations. The thinking is that this type of training can best be conducted by female and minority trainers who can speak from personal experience. Not only their technical competence as professional trainers, but their personal experience adds credibility to the message of what it is like to be a member of the non-dominant group in the system.

The Alternative: The key to any effective training is being able to establish rapport with the trainees! By using only female and minority trainers you risk the appearance of the trainers holding the moral high ground. This will alienate the trainees, rather than influence them. The ideal condition is to have training teams made up of one minority trainer and one straight, white, male trainer. The latter has the same blind spots as the group and can relate better. Since it isn’t always feasible or cost effective to have training teams, at least make sure that your trainer has the ability and willingness to relate to the trainees as well as to the message.

Choice #2 Who Gets The Training?

Current Practice: While everybody in the target group, e.g., management, is required to participate in the diversity training program, the real target for the training is the SWAM. The assumption is that since he is, and has been, the dominant force in the system, the objective of the training is to sensitize him so he will be more aware of the needs and preferences of the female and minority members of the organization.

The Alternative: While there is certainly some legitimacy to this view from an historical perspective, it may not be the best way to conduct the training. Holding the SWAM up as the universal oppressor will do little to help him develop a more sympathetic approach. A better way is first, to make sure that each training session is made of as diverse a group as possible. Second, acknowledge that nobody has the “pain market” cornered and that awareness of differences is everybody’s task, not just the SWAMs. Finding common ground can be a lot more productive than looking for a villain to punish.

Choice #3 Deal With Attitudes Or Behaviors?

Current Practice: All diversity programs are value driven. Frankly, we cannot imagine designing a program that wouldn’t be. The reality is that most current diversity programs are designed to change people’s (SWAM’s) attitudes about other people, and while this may seem like a good strategy, it frequently creates more problems than it cures. It is one thing to advocate a set of humanistic values and quite another to demand that people see things in a certain “politically correct” way if they want to succeed or be well thought of in the program. The best that can be hoped for is that participants pay “lip service” to the “politically correct” values and bury their resistance ever deeper.

The Alternative: An effective program can certainly start with a clear statement of values but also must include an explicitly stated second step: All participants have an absolute right to state how they see things, in complete safety, so long as the boundaries for good taste are reasonably observed. The critical question is, “How can we begin to deal with our differences if it isn’t even safe to openly state them?” A much more realistic approach is to validate people’s values, whatever they are, and then get on with looking at the specific behaviors that cause pain and problems. Those you can do something about. (You’re not going to change people’s values anyway!)

Choice #4 What’s Being Said vs. How It’s Being Said?

Current Practice: Many programs put major emphasis on “Languaging”, or how things are said. The common practice is to insist on what is commonly known as “Politically Correct” Language. As with many roads to Hell, this one is also paved with the best of intentions. Euphemisms are insisted upon, so that Blacks become African Americans; the blind become the “visually impaired”; and, the short (and the dead) become the “vertically challenged.” The list is endless. Before insisting on this kind of language norm, or allowing it, be aware that there are three deleterious effects to insisting upon politically correct language.

The first is that it deadens the impact of what is being said. If it is the speaker’s obligation to be sure that no phrase used has any capacity to cause pain, the language becomes bland. The first thing sacrificed is humor and the second is impact. The second damaging effect is that there is an implication that something is wrong with the term Black, blind, or short, and thereby there must be something wrong with the person who bears that, or whatever, characteristic. The subtle message is, “You poor dear, you just can’t handle being what you are, so we won’t remind you.” This is not the intended message! Finally, while the intention is to be respectful of the other person’s difference, the effect is that, frequently, the other person feels patronized. Here the “cleaned up language” is more insulting than any plain reference to the characteristic.

The Alternative: At the start of any program, the trainer states the best of intentions and asks that participants refer to the diverse issues with the respect that they would like. Next, an agreement is made that if anyone, at anytime, is offended by something that someone has said, they are to interrupt by yelling “OUCH” The issue is then surfaced and closure immediately achieved. This not only keeps the program alive, it places the responsibility for confronting painful issues where it belongs … with the injured person.

Choice #5: Guilt vs. Empathy

Current Practice: Many, if not the majority, of system-wide diversity training focuses on how the SWAM has, at the worst, oppressed the female and minority organization members; and at the very best has merely been the dominating force. Even if occasionally justified, this is hardly a productive strategy to adopt. First, you are going to have a hard time getting people to feel personally guilty or responsible for something they had no hand in; secondly, if successful the best you are going to get is a weak, unfocused apology; and, third, imposing a feeling of guilt doesn’t change history.

The Alternative: Better than inflicting guilt, go for empathy. Try to get the SWAMs to remember a time when they were discriminated against, e.g., too short for the basketball team, excluded from a fraternity, or maybe simply not invited to an event that others were. Remember that nobody has the pain market cornered! By the same token, help the minority members get in touch with how they have been the oppressors, e.g., lording it over a younger brother, keeping someone off the team, or excluding a person from the sorority.

Choice #6 Victim vs. Survivor

Current Practice: The more emphasis that is placed on how rough and unfair past practices have been, the more the female and minority members tend to see themselves as victims. The longer this goes on, the more entrenched becomes the perception. This frequently turns in to a “suffering contest” pitting each group against the other in terms of who has been mistreated the most, which invariably ends up in a unified attack on SWAMy. All that’s missing are the pitchforks and the torches.

The Alternative: There is no question that injustice and pain has and does occur. This needs to be acknowledged by all persons, fully and honestly, and then dropped! Rather than asking victims of discrimination to describe their pain and suffering in detail, it is far more functional and strengthening to ask them to describe: how they survived it; what they learned from it; and how it made them stronger. This is not only educational for all the listeners, it is reaffirming to the person speaking to hear herself relate this.

Resistance to Diversity Training

In designing and delivering diversity training almost, if not all, programs focus on making changes in the awareness and the attitudes of the participants. The strategy is to create changes that will have a long term positive impact on the organizational culture, with the objective of creating a safer and more productive working environment for all organizational members.

Most of these diversity programs are value driven, rather than skill driven, so that there is a clear message being sent out as to how things “should be”. The nature of the value doesn’t really matter much. What does matter is that the moment that one person tells others how they should think or feel, a certain amount of resistance is automatically created. This resistance has nothing to do with the nature of the demand, itself, but rather is in service to protecting the integrity of the individual. That is, no matter how positive the message or how much I may support it, a certain part of me is going to simultaneously resist an uninvited outside effort to change who I am. And, make no mistake, any attempt to change someone else’s attitudes, beliefs, or values is exactly that, an attempt to change who they are. In some cases this might be a very good thing to do. Just realize that it’s going to be met with a certain amount of natural resistance that has nothing to do with the demand for change itself, and it is best that you are aware of this potential from the outset. This resistance may not always be operating on the conscious level, but I contend, aware or not, your safest bet is to assume it is there, with the possibility of growing stronger.

The Nature of Resistance

People will resist what other’s want them to think or feel for one of two basic reasons; either the demand is not in their best self-interest, or the demand is experienced as an attack on their self-image. Quite often, the demand for change is being made very powerfully so that the message is being delivered with some very compelling reasons for people to conform to it.

One approach is to couple the need for diversity training with implied threat, e.g., “Attendance to this program is a company policy and all personnel will conform.” Another approach is to couple the need for diversity training with guilt, e.g., “We, the Straight, White, American, Male, majority have traditionally been racists, whether we intended to be so or not. We have to change our ways and attitudes.” Still another way, is to sell the values of diversity with the hope of generating enthusiasm for the up-coming training programs, e.g., “We need to be more responsive to the unique capabilities of others so as to maximize our potential for effectiveness.”

Regardless of whether the attempt is to break down the resistance to diversity training, or to minimize it, or to avoid it all together, it is still going to exist. The resistance needs to be recognized, honored and worked with. It is very important that designers and deliverers of diversity training be aware of the positive aspects of participant resistance. First, resistance is absolutely unavoidable. Since that is the reality, you are much better off focusing on, and working with, the positive aspects of resistance than your are wasting time bemoaning the negative ones.

Second, resistance provides protection. It is as beneficial for the participant to avoid what is not wanted in the program, as it is in embracing what is wanted. The more you provide a safe environment that is nonthreatening to all participants, the less unintended resistance you are going to have to deal with.

Third, resistance is a source of energy, and anything that provides energy in a training program is an asset. If you can provide a safe forum for some of the resistance to be expressed, you are likely to have a more involved group of participants.

Fourth, resistance provides boundary. It is where someone’s “Yes” changes into a “No”. Surfacing that information and finding out what participants are resisting in the program provides the opportunity for some real reality testing. It allows you to address specific concerns that may be blocking the training back on the job.

Working With The Resistance

There are several things you can do to avoid unnecessary resistance and/or to work productively with the resistance that is there.

1. Provide a Contract.

As the very first step of any diversity training program, negotiate a contract with the group. The contract sets the guidelines for appropriate behavior for the length of the training session. Elements in the contract can include things like: “No `shoulds’ from me.”; “I make mistakes too. If I inadvertently step on someone’s toe, you are obligated to let me know. Yell, `Ouch’ and I’ll ask you what I did wrong.”; and, “Everyone has a right to their own opinion and to state it responsibly.”

The key to contracting is to allow the group to respond to each idea separately and get agreement on that item before moving on. In addition, ask them for additional ideas that would make the training safer, more relevant, or more enjoyable. The contracting process allows the group to take responsibility for itself, increase their buy-in, and see you as a trainer, rather than as a preacher.

2. Deal Only In Behaviors And Awareness, Never In Attitudes.

While we briefly discussed this issue as a “choice”, in the above section, its impact on resistance is heavy enough to warrant another mention. The more you state or imply that someone’s attitude, belief, or value, is not as good as yours, or is outright wrong, the more defensiveness and resistance you are going to create. (Check out your own reaction to that message.) On the other hand, the more you show people a better thing to do or a new way of seeing things that is to their advantage, the higher the probability you will get a positive change in attitude as a result. Rather than telling people how you would like them to feel about what you have to say, show them what you would like them to do, or see, instead. Explain what the behavior or awareness is, e.g., diverse cultural concepts of time, and how come it is important for them to be aware of these. You end up with a more involved group.

3. Work With The Resistance.

As we have said, since participant resistance is unavoidable, there is a way to work with it to your, and to the group’s, advantage. First, I would suggest that you have a statement in the contract that spells out your view to resistance. For example, “This is intended as training, not indoctrination. We are dealing with `diversity’ and diverse opinions about this topic are certainly welcomed.” When resistance begins to arise in the group, try the following strategy.

[1] First, make you points clearly.

The clearer and more unequivocal your point, the clearer will be the resistance that rises up against it and, the easier it will be to work with.

[2] Surface the resistance.

When someone says that they disagree with a point you made, thank them and ask them to say more. Ask them to state the resistance in behavioral terms, if possible. The more specific detail you get describing the resistance, the easier it will be to work with. Continue to encourage the open statement of the resistance.

[3] Honor the resistance.

Listen to what the person is saying about the problem they are having with what you are saying. Honoring their position does not mean agreeing with it. For example, some honoring statements include: “I understand how this could be a problem for you.”; “I know that there are many out there who might agree with you”; or, “I can certainly see where you are coming from.” Honored resistance does not increase. Honoring the resistance lets the resistor know that he or she has been heard and their position acknowledged. This will put the other person in a more receptive mood without you being seen as patronizing.

[4] Explore the resistance.

After the resistance has been surfaced and honored, you can let it go at that, or you can explore it. For instance, you can say something like, “Given your situation as you just described it, is there some way that what I have just said could be of use?” or, “If you got support from you boss, would this idea then be worth considering.?” The best way to create positive change is to help the participants to adapt your input to their situation, rather than you doing it for them.

One additional small, but important consideration. When probing someone’s resistance, never ask then “Why do you feel that way?” Asking “why”, tends to put people on the defensive and demands that they justify their position. This will increase the resistance. Try asking, “What is your objection?”, instead.

[5] Recheck

When you have responded to the participant’s resistance it is a good idea to summarize the work before moving on to the next point or participant. There are three benefits to doing this.

1. It condenses the cognitive learning coming out of the interaction so that the other participants can see the points made more clearly.

2. It allows the participant, with whom you were working, the opportunity to put the whole learning encounter into a brief and clear context.

3. It encourages other participants to state their concerns and then to have the opportunity for you to cast your input into their unique situation. This goes a long way toward encouraging the individual application of the program material back in the work environment.


Resistance is just as natural a phenomenon in diversity training as it is in any other training context. It is seen as being more potentially volatile here because cultural diversity is purely subjective and people go into this a little afraid of what “might” happen.

The first thing to do is to view resistance as an asset, rather than as a liability. The second is to recognize your own ability to deal with it competently. From this position, resistance can be used to enhance a diversity training program, just as readily as it can any other.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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