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Dubious About Diversity: When Public Employees Raise Objections to Mandatory Diversity Training

Were you to conduct a literature review on the do’s and don’ts and the how’s and why’s of public workplace diversity training, you’d find a wealth of good material. One topic that continues to be understudied, however, concerns employees who negatively respond to mandatory workplace diversity training. In fact, it is not uncommon to find resistance to such training if not outright objections to trainings, with some objections manifesting themselves in formal grievances or lawsuits (Jarret, 2006). Such instances of backlash, if you will, provide unique challenges for public HR managers.

Margaret Wheatley, during her studies of organizational behavior, rightly concluded that, “We depend on diversity. We know that people need to be talking to one another again across all the boundaries and hurts that have been created. And we know that new solutions are available only when new people are in the conversation.”

To be sure, public entities around the world are seeking new ways to engage employees in vital discussions about how our cultures and backgrounds influence our experiences in the workplace. Unfortunately, however, not all of these discussions lead to a more harmonious workplace.

Peter Bregman, the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm which advises CEOs and their leadership teams, suggests in a 2012 piece for Psychology Today entitled “Diversity Training Doesn’t Work” that “diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice. It promotes it.” Suzanne Lucas with Moneywatch agrees and suggests in her 2012 piece, “Why you should stop attending diversity training,” that managers should concentrate on appropriate ways for employees to react when a coworker or supervisor says something offensive rather than attempting to mandate what people can and cannot say. She offers five suggestions designed to improve workplace relationships:

  1. “Speak up. If someone makes a joke that includes a racial stereotype that you find offensive, instead of assuming that this person hates all people of that race, speak up.
  2. Don’t look to be offended. Start off every relationship with the idea that the person is not racist/sexist/whatever-ist.
  3. Treat everyone nicely and fairly. Discrimination lawsuits come up because people feel they are being treated unfairly.
  4. If you are the manager, you need to document bad behavior in every employee. You also need to document good behavior. Give feedback to everyone in a timely manner.
  5. Look to yourself first. We often see what we expect to see. If every time you turn around you find yourself being treated poorly because of your race/sex/national origin, do some deep thinking and try to figure out if that’s really the case.
  6. Report truly discriminatory behavior to HR or the chain of command. Provide your documentation and be clear about what it is you’re complaining about.”

In order to reduce the frequency and severity of claims predicated upon mandatory diversity training, Walsh (1997) suggests that the public manager should emphasize the following to senior management:

  • The importance of program support by all persons in supervisory and management positions;
  • The importance of both soliciting employee input as well as involving employees in training design;
  • The importance of conducting needs assessments and customizing programs to meet a particular entity’s needs, culture and composition (Note, because each entity has its own diversity-related issues, no one size fits all or generic approach or set of standards can be used to establish the focus and content of training);
  • The importance of hiring trainers who possess diversity training skills and who can demonstrate a proven ability to teach diversity rather than trainers who are selected solely because they represent an underrepresented portion of the entity;
  • The importance of creating an atmosphere in which all employees take ownership of the diversity problems and recognize they are part of the problem as well as of the solution;
  • The importance of remembering that effective programs should be more geared toward changing an employee’s behavior than changing their values.

Bregman (2012) emphasizes the need to train people to “do their work with a diverse set of individuals. Not categories of people. People. Teach them how to have difficult conversations with a range of individuals. Teach them how to manage the variety of employees who report to them. Teach them how to develop the skills of their various employees. And, while teaching them that, help them resist the urge to think about someone as a gay person, a white man, a black woman or an Indian.”

Eliminating doubts about diversity training can be a challenge for today’s public sector HR manager, but it doesn’t have to be a daunting one if dubious attitudes about new ways of thinking about current diversity training programs can be overcome.


Authors: Joseph G. Jarret is a public sector manager, attorney and mediator who lectures on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the 2013 president of the E. Tennessee Chapter of ASPA. Autriel E. Galloway is graduate is of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Masters in Public Policy and Administration Degree program.


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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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