Diversity training ‘invaluable’ in helping businesses succeed

Local and national experts agree that diversity training has become invaluable for improving interpersonal relationships and helping businesses succeed.

Area organizations and businesses of all sizes have access to a range of training options to address the needs of their diverse workforces and client bases.

Yet "you have to have commitment to leadership to be truly invested," remarked Dee Sabol, executive director for the Diversity Council in Rochester, Minn. "There are organizations … who bring on a diversity officer, check (a box) off and say we have a diversity officer and are pretty sure that’s going to be effective. It takes a lot more than that."

The Diversity Council of Minnesota helps businesses and organizations go beyond such superficial measures through on-site training or workshops to help them assess internal and external practices, from materials used for staff recruitment, to the hiring process and even holiday policies for employees.

"An important aspect of diversifying the workforce is preparing the workplace and making sure any organization’s bias is addressed," Sabol said.

If a job description notes that a worker must be an exceptional communicator, for example, Sabol’s office advises company officials to instead specify exactly what they are looking for — such as someone who is comfortable speaking to clients in person or on the phone. She also recommends that businesses use hiring panels instead of allowing one person to handle interviews, she added.

"That’s how you get away from hiring people who are just like you," Sabol noted of using hiring panels.

Realizing that every person has a different lens through which he or she views the world also helps to enrich an organization, said Steve Jarose, director for the Rochester chapter of the National Coalition Building Institute. The institute offers peer training to boost leadership skills and encourages ongoing practices to address diversity needs.

"We feel that the more diverse an organization is, the more likely it is to meet customer needs, to be successful in reaching out to the community, and also tailoring its services and products to meet the needs of expanding populations or populations which are underserved or not served," he said.

NCBI’s Rochester chapter has a team of trainers and facilitators who represent the diversity of the community at large, Jarose explained. These people generally facilitate or lead training sessions in pairs or teams on-site or as part of community workshops, he noted.

"We want people who are part of the audience to see themselves reflected in the people who are facilitating," Jarose said.

Companies and organizations seek training from NCBI for myriad reasons, he said. Some organizations may have experienced a cultural or racial conflict and come to NCBI for an assessment. In such cases, his volunteer staff will go out to study the demographics of the organization and determine what has worked in resolving such conflicts in the past, Jarose said.

"Then, we can design a program or a training," he said. "This can be a series of trainings, or it could be one-on-one work with a particular person or individual."

Networking and community workshops also provide ways to connect with individuals who may in turn seek out training for their own workplaces, Jarose added. A participant in the local Workforce Diversity Network, the Rochester chapter has participated in community conversations on race and in work groups as part of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, he said.

Skills training offered by NCBI and the Diversity Council include sessions on listening, role playing and establishing ground rules for communication.

"Organizations are beginning to recognize this: That it is important for us to have an authentic voice in an organization where you are comfortable to speak up without fear of recrimination," said Jarose, who is retired from his position as coordinator of staff development and training at Finger Lakes DDSO.

Being comfortable in establishing relationships with others who are different than oneself also is the goal of a YWCA of Rochester initiative that was created three years ago, explained Miriam Moore, director of new business development for the organization’s racial equity programs.

The Person2Person initiative provides a setting in which two individuals who identify differently in terms of racial or ethnic backgrounds spend nine months together meeting and really get to know each others’ stories, Moore said.

The initial participants in the initiative included the leadership of several community organizations and corporations in Rochester, Moore said.

"They’re the change agents in their own organizations," said David Mancuso, YWCA’s marketing and communications manager. "(Because) they are in positions of authority, they can continue that change within their own organization."

"Systematic racism is very real," Moore added. "When you begin to dig into the layers of how all this came to be, and still occurs, these key people have the power to begin … there and make some revisions and modifications and really look at things through an equitable lens."

Those unconscious biases can affect whom a person hires or promotes, Moore said.

She added that the YWCA is now moving into the second phase of the initiative, which is to offer the program on site at three local universities for students, faculty and staff, including Nazareth College. Nazareth’s president, Daan Braveman, participated in the first Person2Person group, Moore said.

This phase provides an opportunity to reach young people before their unconscious biases take root, she said. Minnesota’s Diversity Council aims to form young minds even earlier, offering diversity programs for children in grades K-8, Sabol added.

"Hopefully, we can shift their mind-set early on and have some bearing on how they go forth in their careers," Moore said. "The term unconscious is powerful. The ways we’ve lived our lives, our backgrounds, have all shaped how we perceive things."

And when companies talk about workplace diversity, such programs as Person2Person or community workshops offer concrete opportunities for them to put their money where their mouths are, Mancuso said.

"Workforce diversity is important," he said. "These discussions need to happen."

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