With the introduction of the new Employment and Race directives from the European Union in 2001 it is now important that companies examine their attitudes and policies on gender, race, disability, sexuality, age and religion. Given this context, we believe that an understanding of the legislation and its effect on company policies is important for all employees. However, here at Impact Factory we tend to do things differently. So when we think about equality and diversity issues we don't offer a standard 'off the peg' equal opportunities training. If that is what you need we are probably the wrong company for you. Diversity workshops Certainly in our diversity workshops we cover legislation and each company's own internal policies, but our focus is on examining people's perspectives on difference, diversity, change and the attitudes and feelings that are sometimes difficult for people around equal opportunities programmes.
Our experience is that with this type of work people can attend a fairly mechanistic one-day event covering the legislation and company policy and leave with the feeling that the work was "bolt-on" and irrelevant to them. The organisation feels it has done what is required but little really changes back in the workplace. If people feel unable to engage with the realities of working within a diverse, multi-cultural organisation the training isn't doing its job properly.
Bigotry happens, whether it's around race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, age, religion or nationality. Whether people want to admit or not, we are all prejudiced. We all make assumptions about others that reinforce our stereotypes; indeed we look for evidence to support our biases.
We're all guilty of the occasional toss-away line that cuts deep; and we all have intolerant behaviours that are so ingrained we don't even notice we're doing them. Not only that, each of us is the focus of someone else's prejudices and bigotry, is someone else's stereotype, is the trigger for someone else's intolerance. Can you eliminate prejudice? No you can't. Can you get people aware of how their prejudices affect others and help them do something about it? Absolutely. Acknowledging the real dilemmas For us it is important to acknowledge that people will face real dilemmas around equal opportunities issues.
They need to feel equipped to cope with the human side of problems that arise and to feel able to engage with and challenge their own prejudices and stereotypes around difference. They also need to understand just how that prejudice translates into active discrimination. What happens to people when they are excluded, harassed, bullied, passed over, ignored, isolated - not because of what they do but because of who they are? People feel demeaned and disempowered.
Their motivation falters and their stress levels increase. Most unfortunate of all, their self-esteem and confidence about who they are diminishes. What happens to companies when any of that happens to their people? Productivity goes down while stress-related illnesses go up. Formal complaints and tribunals become commonplace, which is an awful waste of people's emotional energies and time. And they can cost companies a lot of money to boot.
You'll never stamp out discrimination entirely, but you can make a very effective dent in its power. The most successful diversity trainings help people to develop reflective thinking, empathy, understanding, raised awareness, sensitivity, an understanding of consequences and a desire to be fair. Skills that will assist them in extending equality of opportunity. Skills that will also help them when they themselves are the victims of discrimination. Impact Factory's starting point during the design stage of an equal opportunities programme is always to ask, what has prompted your organization to think about this type of work now? Is it simply the concern about meeting legislative requirements, or do you believe there are real attitudes and practices within the company that need to change? Additionally we look at a company's own values on difference and diversity.
Again, if they are there simply to meet requirements, then any number of programmes won't shift things. However, if it's a company that values its values then the possibility for change is enormous. This is the real difference between commitment and lip service.
Culture Clashes When people operate from their prejudices, they create culture clashes. Cross-cultural issues exist everywhere; they exist in every aspect of our lives. Here's our take on it: a culture clash of some sort occurs as soon as two people get together, since no two people, even family members, have the same internal world or the same view of the external world. In the broadest sense, you 'cross' cultures with every person you come into contact with, whether they are the 'same' as you nor not.
In a workplace that celebrates differences, people accommodate, sublimate or ignore these different 'cultures' because of common ground, shared goals and like interests. When people concentrate on similarities, the differences are less noticeable, or at any rate, less important. Once we get a certain amount of common ground, we can 'get along'. Difficulties usually arise when the differences appear to be all there is, or you experience or imagine the differences as stumbling blocks. Indeed, differences appear like rocks at low tide! Obvious ones are language, ethnic or racial background, religious beliefs, gender, age, education.
In the workplace all these may be the cause of culture clashes, and then you add differences in working practises and communication styles between departments, with clients, with other companies and between senior management and other people in the workforce. When cultures clash, no matter what the cause, things inevitably evolve into a 'them' and 'us' environment; and then people go around collecting 'evidence' to prove that they are right and the other guys are wrong. There are many avenues to take that will help cultures 'get along' better: identifying and concentrating on improved communication, fostering mutual respect, engendering co-operation and shared visions.
Then, all kinds of diverse cultures can work side by side to everyone's benefit. Feelings and Behaviours So you can have laws, directives, company policies and company values and you will still have major problems around diversity unless people's feelings and behaviours are the focus of any equal ops work you do. We can tell you right now, it can be a mighty uncomfortable process - asking people to dig down deep and talk about their own prejudices on the one hand, and their experiences of being discriminated against on the other.
This is some of what we do: We start with some of the simpler, or shall we say, subtler forms of exclusion that most everyone will have experienced at some time in their lives: being outside an 'in' group, for instance. Indeed a lot of us have had the humiliating experience of standing with a food tray in a cafeteria trying to figure out where to sit and picking up the vibes from some group that say, "Don't even think about sitting here." Then we ask what it feels like being part of an 'in' group and what power (often unconscious, but no less potent) that gives people. Next is a look at the more overt forms of discrimination such as sexual harassment, racist jokes, job rejections, promotion limitations and so on. We find out whether people have colluded and gone along with giving someone else (or even worse, themselves) a hard time.
Or whether they stuck their necks out and had them chopped off? All of that is our departure point. Only then can we help people develop realistic skills to deal more effectively with diverse workplace relationships. We make it personal and relevant. What we do know is that if you can get this right, the richness of difference definitely makes work a better place to be.
Jo Ellen and Robin run Impact Factory who provide Equality and Diversity Training, Public Speaking Presentation Skills, Communications Training, Leadership Development and Executive Coaching for Individuals.