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Training employees to succeed in a diverse world

By Aaron Green, 08/18/08

Training sessions on how to communicate across cultures and work successfully with people of diverse backgrounds are no longer optional in today's workplace. While organizations with diverse groups of employees and public-facing businesses that interact with diverse populations have long sought training on these issues, today the need for diversity training is strong across all business types.

Top companies actively use diversity communication skills to capture additional revenues, foster an improved corporate image, improve recruitment, lower turnover rates, improve teamwork, and reduce legal exposure.

Consider whether your organization is as prepared as it should be to be successful in our increasingly diverse world. Is there an understanding throughout your organization and a commitment to interacting successfully with diverse customers, suppliers, partners and employees?

Getting started

In the past five years, there has been a fundamental shift in the way many companies see diversity. In the past, many diversity training programs focused only on race and gender. Now, we are seeing companies broaden their approach to diversity - using a definition of diversity that is far more encompassing. By broadening the definition of diversity the conversation becomes an inclusive "us understanding us" instead of an exclusive "us understanding them." This allows all employees to feel that they are part of the diversity conversation.

If you want to make a difference and improve your company's interaction with diverse audiences, first start with an assessment. Think about where your organization is in terms of diversity training and where you want to be. Consider the core concepts about your organization that you want to convey.

It's critical to link this assessment to a business case; diversity training is way beyond helping employees "feel good" and can be essential to businesses' bottom lines. When possible, make the link to the business case concrete such as improving customer service response time to a specific population or customer group.

One size does not fit all

When it comes to cross-cultural training the trend has been toward customization to fit companies' specific needs. For example, the needs of a retail bank chain that has expanded by opening branches servicing Hispanic markets will differ substantially from the needs of a software firm that has acquired a development partner in India.

According to Kari Heistad, the founder of Culture Coach International, companies are increasingly performing customized diversity training programs tailored to meet the specific topics that are of importance to their current situation.

Most organizations will use a mixture of the following training opportunities, tailoring the training to suit the specific needs of the business and constituent groups within them:

  • Diversity training via a short workshop, or half-day or full-day session
  • Diversity training as part of a management retreat
  • Diversity training as part of new employee training to emphasize the organization's commitment to diversity
  • Incorporating diversity training into "regular" staff training.

Unlike other training, diversity training does not lend itself well to online learning as it is a topic that needs opportunities for discussion and interaction.

Ensuring success and reinforcing what was learned

As with all change initiatives, it's important to have management buy-in up-front and ongoing reinforcement of the training principles. Creating an organization that values diversity is a process and not something that will be achieved with one training program done in isolation. Add perspective by explaining to employees why the training is important to the company and what kind of success they will enjoy by improving their ability to interact with new and diverse groups. Support the actual training sessions by drawing attention to the training principles and benefits. For instance, you could write about cross cultural challenges in a company newsletter or blog.

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