The Thin Skin of Business: Sensitivity Training

Think of it as the psychosocial version of the global warming movement, or political correctness with a tie and a slide show, but sensitivity training, those programs that businesses use to make sure their employees have a nice, homogenous mindset about race and gender, sexuality, religion, disability and just about all the other things that could divide people who have to work together, is a growing industry in its own right. The goals of these programs are nice: examine your prejudices, look at your behavior, acknowledge the humanity of those different from you and learn to get along. There is nothing wrong with any of these things. In fact, everyone should examine their ideas and behavior, accept what is true and throw away what isn’t. Oh wait, isn’t that called growing up? I guess growing up isn’t what it used to be. Now we have to pay thousands of dollars to accomplish what our fathers used to do for free with a stern warning and slap upside the head. 

Acknowledge Your Problem!

There is a communications company in California, we’ll leave the name out for legal reasons, that offers sensitivity training. Here is what they have to say about their service: 

In today’s multicultural workplace, a lack of diversity awareness or cultural sensitivity can generate serious ramifications for an organization. Individuals who transgress in these areas or who are accused of sexual harassment become a potential source of serious liability for a company. Many of the executives, managers, and other employees we work with are basically good-willed persons who through lack of experience or training engage in behaviors that often result in negative and seriously damaging consequences. 

We have developed a full day and follow-up training program that is specifically customized for such individuals. The many aspects of diversity (gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.) and the principles for avoiding harassment behavior of any kind are thoroughly discussed. The training program is based on proven principles of change rather than simple conformity to expected behavioral norms. The one-on-one coaching sessions are specifically targeted to the individual’s personal development and are based on communication strategies that are frank, respectful, and caring. 

So this company educates people so they won’t say stupid things, that’s fine, but how do they do it? I mean, what are these “proven principles of change?” By the way, they don’t tell you how much it costs, but you can guess. If you look at other sensitivity coaches and providers, you hear a lot about the approach, or skill-building and, of course, that they have a proven process. 

According to Dr. Gerald Atkinson in his 1999 article “What is 'Sensitivity Training?'” The process is really a number of “techniques perfected by behavioral scientists to change our core beliefs aimed at sowing confusion in the minds of those who would oppose such change. This confusion is created by presenting logical contradictions as equally plausible, valid, and actionable. Those without a strong belief system, be it empirical, scientific, religious, or logical are especially susceptible to the urgings of those who seek change. Those who have strong enough belief systems that enable them to challenge, refute, and oppose this change are coerced by small-group encounter techniques to conform to the 'majority' view as determined and sown by a 'facilitator' and supported by the core group of 'believers' plus the newly recruited 'sheep' who join the 'majority' group for fear of confrontation. If the challenger does not conform to the group pressure to adopt the 'consensus' view, he is further isolated from the group and/or discarded.  He is never allowed to participate fully in the process thereafter.” 

In other words, sensitivity training is a process of browbeating an acceptable attitude out of you or eliminating you altogether. Consider this example from the U.S. Navy that opens Atkinson’s article: 

An example comes from a young naval officer who was subjected to it during its initial implementation in the U.S. military during the mid-1970s, after the Navy had experienced race riots on many of its ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk toward the end of the Vietnam War. The young naval aviator was ordered to attend a training session at the NavalAirTestCenter at Patuxent River, MD along with about a dozen other naval officers.

The two 'facilitators' who led this small-group encounter session were a young Hispanic enlisted woman and a black chief petty officer (CPO).  Their goal was to apprise the all-white naval officer attendees of their insensitivity to the plight of disadvantaged minorities in the U.S. Navy - and to examine their attitudes and 'behavior' toward minorities and women and change them if warranted.

After a short introduction, the CPO exclaimed 'All of you are racists!'  The astounded attendees were draped in a silence that was deafening. After looking at each other in disbelief, someone overcame his shock to ask, 'Why?'  The CPO shot back, 'Because you are white!'  All of the attendees, save one, looked at the ceiling, or at the floor, or at each other in embarrassment and/or forced-guilt resulting from this unexpected, outlandish frontal assault.  The one stood and in a steady, firm voice said, 'Excuse me, but I object to being called a racist.  I do not and have never discriminated against anyone on the basis of race, color, national origin, or sex.  In fact, my ancestors are from the North and several of them fought in the Union Army during the Civil War to free the slaves.'

Instead of retreating at this rational and forthright reply, the CPO told the young Lieutenant that he was not cooperating, was being disruptive of the class, and should immediately leave the room.  The officer asked the CPO to come out into the hallway.  Once there, the Lieutenant reminded the CPO that he was an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy and in his Navy enlisted men did not give orders to officers nor treat them with disrespect.  The CPO insisted that he was bound by the 'sensitivity training' syllabus to conduct the class as he had and that under this set of orders was required to remove the recalcitrant naval officer from the class.  At this standoff, the young LT decided to leave rather than cause further disruption of a 'required' training session.

Today, the tactics used are more subtle, you are unlikely to have someone yell at you that you are a racist, but they amount to the same three stage process of change. The first step is called Unfreezing, when your original mindset is broken down. The second step is Change, when a new mindset is introduced. The third step is called Freezing, when that new mindset crystallizes and takes hold of the subject. The CPO in the example above was engaged in Unfreezing, and this is where trainers get the most resistance. Sometimes, people just know that they aren’t racist, or sexist or any other –ist you might be able to come up with. Come to think of it, most of us already know that. 

Now that I’m Insulted and Uncomfortable, is this Going to Help?

The short answer is “NO!” There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the idea that this is bunk—the John Rocker case springs to mind—but there have also been some solid studies as well. For example, in their study, “Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies,” which was published in the August, 2006, edition of the American Sociological Review; researchers Alexandra Kalev (Univ. of Califorina, Berkeley), Frank Dobbin (HarvardUniv.) and Erin Kelly (Univ. of Minnesota) concluded that: 

Practices that target managerial bias through feedback (diversity evaluations) and education (diversity training) show virtually no effect in the aggregate. They show modest positive effects when responsibility structures are also in place and among federal contractors. But they sometimes show negative effects otherwise. Research to date from HR experts and psychologists suggests that interactive training workshops, of the kind we examine, often generate backlash. 

So these programs, which don’t help, can actually do more harm than good! Of course, with “responsibility structures” such as diversity being part of an employee’s evaluation or tasking employees with specific diversity and sensitivity education and enforcement duties—or you work for a federal contractor—things improve a little. Otherwise, they don’t. This means that the $5000 your company spent on that day-long sensitivity training seminar they forced you to sit through; the one that made you wonder if you are a bad person to go to the other end of the train platform that night the scary-looking “gangsta” types showed up or if you are a bad person for thinking that this whole sensitivity training seminar is a load of crap; accomplished precisely nothing (except giving you a twinge of guilt over that pesky fight-or-flight reaction). 

Running for Cover: The Rationale behind Sensitivity Training

People say stupid things. A long time ago, these stupid things would result in a fight, or some company discipline. True, sometimes nothing at all would happen and that was frustrating, sometimes so frustrating that the case would end up in court, and that created new problems. Employers had to diversify their workforce, but as the number of discrimination suits increased, they often saw women and minorities as lawsuits with legs, rather than the best person for the job. They needed a way to mitigate this and the solution they were sold was sensitivity training. 

By adopting these programs, often at thousands of dollars a shot, companies could demonstrate in court that they are mindful of the issues and needs of their minority and female employees. “Yes, Your Honor, Johnson did go through our sensitivity program and he passed it, too. We in the Executive Suite can’t believe he groped poor Miss Smith like that and I fired him as soon as I heard about it!” Johnson gets thrown under the bus, he probably deserved it, and whatever poor Miss Smith actually gets out of the company will likely be less than she’s asking for. To sum up: Johnson went to sensitivity training and then got his grope and possibly a reasonable severance, Miss Smith got some cash, Miss Smith’s lawyer got some cash, the sensitivity trainer got some cash and the company got the bills and maybe a little PR lift by demonstrating to all and sundry that they don’t tolerate this kind of bad behavior. 

That’s an awful lot of money going through an awful lot of hands because Johnson couldn’t behave himself. Shouldn’t that sensitivity training have headed this off? Of course not, Johnson’s lusts are not to be checked by some sensitivity trainer’s annual PowerPoint presentation. It wouldn’t work on the fictional Johnson any more than it would work on me or you or Ted Bundy, yet it is used as a legal insurance policy to mitigate any possible damages arising from a harassment or discrimination suit. Is there a better way, something that works? 

The Bottom Line

Of course there is, and it is neither difficult nor expensive! You can’t change the way your employees think with handouts and a video presentation, except for the worse, but there is a way you can keep these particular seas reasonably calm. It is called policy consistency, socialization and personal responsibility.

  • Make sure you have a policy that prohibits discrimination, harassment and their related behaviors in the workplace and enforce it equally across the board. This has to come from the top down and it must be unquestionable. Also, put a good investigative process in place to verify the truth of any accusations and whether the action in question actually is a real offense.
  • Create an atmosphere where coworkers can socialize and get to know each other as people. This is really the only legitimate way to open someone up to a person who is different. Small businesses often act more like families than anything else, so take advantage of that. After all, friends and family tend to correct each other’s errors rather than run to file a complaint in court.
  • Make it the responsibility of each and every employee to watch out for trouble. Teach them what to look for and how to handle things. You would expect them to report a theft, right? Why not this? If everyone feels as if they are part of the solution, they are far less likely to want to be the problem. 

These are not foolproof answers, there are none, and they certainly don’t have the cache, stale cookies and neat PowerPoint slides of the typical sensitivity training seminar. No, these suggestions are based on the concept of proper policy administration, the development of mutual respect between people and the empowerment of employees to deal with the problem. These are things that may carry more weight in court than a 1-day seminar. In some places these will work, in others not so much. That is to be expected since each company and each group is different. One more thing: document everything—the policy, the procedures, your programs and initiatives, allegations, investigations, and anything else that seems pertinent. If it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist, and if it doesn’t exist then it can’t be used in court and so it can’t defend you.