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Planning Your Diversity Initiative

Diversity Training
Everything related to diversity training initiatives—the quality of the facilitation; title and content of training; program length; and even the refreshments, training facility, and materials—sends a message. Programs should be carefully designed and put together, and they should convey to participants that the initiative is of vital importance. 

Details Are Important

Here is some key advice for planning and implementing a successful program:

  • Do your homework. The complexity of diversity requires that some level of needs assessment be conducted before interventions are designed. 

  • Strive to bring the top leadership of the organization onboard. Leaders’ input should be invited, welcomed, and honored from the start. 

  • Involve everyone in the organization. The goal of a truly multicultural organization will not be reached by a few people at the top working in isolation. 

  • Think broadly. Research has indicated that presenting a diversity program in terms of race alone tends to negatively affect its success. Consider other diversity issues—gender, sexual orientation, weight, disabilities.

  • Make at least a portion of the training common for all employees. One of the advantages of diversity and team building initiatives is the creation of a common language with which to discuss factors that influence organizational success. The absence of a common process for all employees eliminates this benefit. 

  • Reinforce, reinforce, reinforce. Remember that diversity development has a strong attitude development component. Attitudes cannot be affected through short programs. As performance improvement expert Joe Willmore has humorously argued, “The performance problem didn’t get that screwed up overnight, so it won’t be solved overnight.” 

  • Remember that diversity relations will not improve through training alone. All organizational reward systems—including compensation, promotions, recruitment, and even informal networks—must be aligned with your ultimate goal. People are more likely to observe and abide by those systems than by whatever is discussed or modeled during training. 

Concerns and Challenges


Some pitfalls to avoid at all costs include: 

  • very short programs and programs demonstrating minimal effort. Participants are quick to interpret such initiatives as an effort to “check the diversity box” or protect the organization from future lawsuits. Organizations should start diversity initiatives in earnest. It is fine, however, to divide a longer initiative into shorter modular sessions. 

  • selecting facilitators solely on the basis of their ethnicity, heritage, or culture. The fact that a person comes from a foreign country or is a member of a minority group should not automatically qualify him or her to conduct diversity facilitation.

  • visible sloppiness in arranging the details of the training. Some organizations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on large training initiatives and then choose to save on training location and refreshments. As a result, the success of the training is negatively affected and participants are resentful.

Consider Legal Issues

Legal pitfalls are particularly worrisome in dealing with diversity issues, so the wise program planner will involve the organization’s legal team. In the event of a lawsuit, initiative designs as well as needs assessment reports could be subpoenaed and challenged (Amalfe and Akawie, 2004). 

The involvement of legal counsel in all moments of a diversity process is essential. Concerned with the legal landmines associated with diversity initiatives, we asked Marshall Lachmann, an attorney from Dayton, Ohio, to offer comments and suggestions. 

Lachmann specifically addressed the issue of diversity audits, a common needs assessment process conducted prior to a diversity development initiative. From a business perspective, Lachmann said, diversity audits can be an excellent tool for uncovering organizational shortcomings. Legally, however, cultural audits could be a double-edged sword. 

Many companies fear that if their audits uncover discrimination-related issues, the findings could be used against them in litigation. A good plaintiff’s attorney, however, can also base a discrimination case on a company’s inaction. Alternatively, a company could offer the defense that it did uncover problems but is trying to correct them. 

Lachmann suggested that organizations keep in mind the following directives when undertaking a diversity audit:

  • Undertake the audit only if the company is committed to seeing it through to the end. When an organization begins the process, any hope of claiming ignorance of a problem is greatly reduced and failure to act on any negative findings can be worse than having done nothing at all.

  • Have in-house or outside legal counsel direct the audit. This enables the company to argue that it is protected by the attorney/client privilege. It is very important to limit access to any resulting documentation because the privilege can be lost if other people not under the umbrella of the attorney/client privilege see the reports.

  • Make the reports as objective as possible using relevant statistical data and avoiding subjective comments. 

We recommend that facilitators and managers receive a special orientation concerning their legal responsibilities as well as the potential legal pitfalls of diversity initiatives. It might, however, be a good idea to separate legal responsibility training modules from other modules that address prejudice reduction and diversity team building. If topics are grouped, the message received might be negative (that is, this training is merely a legal requirement to protect the organization) rather than positive (that is, this training is about success and reaching everyone’s highest potential). 

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from Diversity Training, part of ATD’s Trainer’s Workshop series. This book includes guidance on how to build a case for improving diversity relations, along with ammunition to use when separating myth from fact in your debates. In addition, you will find a complete guide to planning and facilitating a leadership kickoff session, with a fully scripted presentation with PowerPoint slides.

About the Author
Cris Wildermuth, a native of Brazil, has had a varied career spanning more than 15 years in management, training, and education. Early in her career, she adapted Xerox's sales training programs to the Brazilian culture and facilitated marketing and management programs for Brazilian and multinational corporations. After immigrating to the United States in 1992, she completed a master's degree in training and development at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and is working on a doctorate there now.
About the Author
For more than 20 years, Susan D. Gray has been helping organizations, teams, and individuals define and achieve their desired goals. With a keen sensitivity to underlying human resource issues that are barriers to organizational effectiveness and team development, she focuses on elevating respectful interactions among all individuals in an organization and promoting team development at all levels. She has designed and delivered a range of human resource development interventions in both the public and private sectors.
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