Diversity brings new workplace rules

“It’s a small world after all …” the ethnically costumed dolls chirped to thousands of beaming visitors at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.
Little did we know.
In 1964, “small world” was a cozy slogan of international goodwill.
Here in the 21st century, globalization, falling trade barriers, cheap airfares, inequalities of wealth, wars and refugee movements have brought people of all backgrounds to the United States.
A “small world” can be found now in the American workplace, where the mix of cultures is leading to clashes – some rising from hostility, others from simple misunderstandings. To work through these issues, many employers resort to diversity training.
Sharon Chancellor, who runs a human resources consulting firm and gives workshops on what she calls “valuing differences,” said the goal is “to create a workplace where people feel included and respected.”
“All of us have stereotypes,” she added. “This workshop helps people see how stereotypes might affect their attitudes and their behavior toward each other. Seeing a situation through other people’s eyes helps people understand that their point of view is not the only one.”
For some Rhode Island organizations, diversity is a deliberate choice:
Lifespan and Bryant University, for example, say they actively recruit people of different races and backgrounds so they can have a staff with a variety of backgrounds and experiences.
“We want a work force that is representative of our patient population,” said Brandon Melton, senior vice president of human resources at Lifespan, the parent company of Rhode Island Hospital, The Miriam Hospital, Bradley Hospital and Newport Hospital. About a quarter of patients at Rhode Island and Bradley, Melton said, are nonwhite.
In addition, the state’s work force is becoming increasingly diverse, especially among younger generations. Bringing more nonwhites into Lifespan at ever-higher skill levels, Melton said, “makes us a stronger organization.”
Lifespan’s next diversity training push, Melton said, will be toward “cultural competency.” Not every staff member can know the fine points of Hmong or Guatemalan culture, he said, but all can learn to ask:
“What name do you want me to use for you?” or, to family members, “In what way do you want to be involved in taking care of the patient?”
Bryant, too, is actively bringing a more diverse collection of faces and personal histories into its student body, faculty and staff.
“We are preparing students to live
in an increasingly diverse world,” said Linda S. Lulli, associate vice president for human resources. “We should be a microcosm of that world.”
Through these efforts, begun in about 1999, the student body, faculty and staff have become more female, less white, and more infused with people from Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
Among the many devices Bryant has used to break down cultural barriers are “diversity monologues,” during which students and others tell stories of cultural clashes on campus. The stories were written as scripts and then performed in vignettes by actors. The performances were filmed and are screened for discussion sessions.
In one monologue vignette, a white male student talked about his discomfort in finding himself rooming with a black student. He didn’t know how to break the ice between them. In another, a black football player from a wealthy New York family felt stereotyped when professors asked him to describe life in the urban ghetto, a place he knew nothing about.
A close but not identical cousin to cross-cultural understanding in the workplace is the need for workers to understand the laws governing harassment, particularly sexual harassment. People are often unaware of what constitutes sexual harassment, and this presents a peril to employers, who can be held legally accountable for abuses in the workplace.
William E. O’Gara, a labor lawyer at Pannone, Lopes & Devereaux, in Providence, provides training on sexual harassment, teaching employers how to convey to workers what personal behaviors are not acceptable in the workplace.
The bottom line, O’Gara said, is that “an employer is obligated to take reasonable steps to make sure these behaviors do not take place in the workplace and to respond to complaints in a prompt and effective manner.”
If an employee is harassed, it can lead to a discrimination complaint with the R.I. Commission for Human Rights or a lawsuit.
The difficulty is that sexual harassment is hard to define. “The courts cannot provide a simple, concise definition of what is harassment,” O’Gara said. “A lot of this training is people struggling with the question of what is lawful and what is not lawful.”
To help clarify the differences, Roberta Matuson, who leads diversity training classes for Human Resource Solutions in Providence, conducts a session where she describes a workplace scenario and asks people to say whether the incident was or was not offensive.
With most scenarios, the response is mixed. For example, is it offensive to place your hands on a seated co-worker’s shoulders as you look at something on her computer screen? Many women say yes; many men say no. And a lot of the men change their vote to no if they are seated at the computer and the person placing his hands on their shoulders is another man.
Matuson tells her students that harassment is based on the perception of the person who is on the receiving end. She added, “Sometimes people will have a real ‘Aha!’ moment when they realize, ‘I had better really pay attention to what I say and do because I don’t know how this other person will interpret it.’ “

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