Commentary: Get Serious About Diversity Training

During the past decade, Corporate America has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to effect racial harmony. Why? In part, the legacy of the civil rights movement demanded such an effort. More than that, though, changing demographics made such an effort urgent. The Hudson Institute's 1987 Workforce 2000 report made that stunningly clear. Its conclusion: Minorities would make up more than half of net new entrants into the labor force by 2000.

That statistic got chief executives' attention. Ever since, Big Business has diligently sought to root out the racial biases, stereotypes, and discriminatory practices that might hurt performance or bring on costly civil rights litigation. In the process, a cottage industry of sorts known as diversity training has mushroomed.

Unfortunately, recent allegations of discriminatory behavior at Texaco Inc. confirm that the movement hasn't exactly spurred a new age of social enlightenment. Rather, senior executives' patronizing and disdainful taped references to black employees (using terminology they most likely learned during diversity courses) reflect the deep racial divide and distrust that linger in many companies across a broad range of industries.

Texaco has apologized. In the face of disastrous publicity and the threat of a government probe, Chairman and CEO Peter I. Bijur's words of atonement have sounded sincere. On Nov. 12, in the wake of boycott threats from civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and others, Bijur even vowed to quickly settle a two-year-old discrimination lawsuit. And the company has created a special board committee on diversity.

POOR RETURNS. If history is any guide, though, those bromides won't do much good. Texaco, after all, has had a diversity training program for at least three years. Judging by the host of discrimination suits from employees in that time, the effort hasn't reduced racial tension. No surprise, says Taylor Cox Jr., an associate professor at the University of Michigan business school: "Most of the organizations that have invested in diversity training have not received a proper return on their investment."

Theoretically, making diversity initiatives work shouldn't be that difficult. During the past decade, corporations have shown a remarkable capacity to reinvent their work culture with total quality management, reengineering, and teamwork. In each program, companies have modified employee behavior--often overcoming strong resistance.

Solving race matters, of course, is trickier because it necessarily focuses attention on a specific group of employees. That creates the potential for resentment and greater division. Moreover, the capacity of employers to change the way people think and feel is limited at best. "It's hard to get inside peoples' heads and manage their attitudes," admits Patsy A. Randell, vice-president for corporate diversity at Honeywell Inc.

The truth, though, is that most efforts to break down cultural barriers in the workplace are doomed for different reasons. Companies rarely pursue diversity strategies with the same urgency and commitment as corporate initiatives viewed as directly affecting the bottom line. All too often, squeezed by budget or time constraints, diversity experts' ambitious reforms are reduced to token efforts. A department head rushes through a canned speech for distracted employees. Workers watch an off-the-shelf video. No wonder nothing happens.

WASTE. For the programs to work, training and education must be extensive and coupled with vigorous CEO-backed efforts to measure change, hold managers accountable for their implementation, and reward practitioners through compensation. In most places, though, that's not going to happen. And without the institutional framework, urgency, and commitment, diversity training is a prodigious waste of time and money.

It's a perfect argument, sadly, for the continued presence of affirmative action. Such programs, which give advantage to minorities in hiring and contracting, often lead to abuses. Then there's the perceived unfairness of the breaks, which creates an unhealthy backlash for race relations.

As flawed as affirmative action is, it at least protects those victimized by the racism we have yet to shake. The playing field is far from level, and much of Corporate America refuses to take on the leveling. Until it does, minorities need the sort of government redress that affirmative action promises. Just ask blacks at Texaco.

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