Diversity training evolving to be all-inclusive

Diversity has long been a stated goal throughout corporate America. Ever since the legal successes of the Civil Rights movement, and acceptance of the need for more women and minorities in the workplace, companies have struggled to recruit, retain, and integrate employees who are not members of the "Old Boys' Club."

Diversity has long been a stated goal throughout corporate America. Ever since the legal successes of the Civil Rights movement, and acceptance of the need for more women and minorities in the workplace, companies have struggled to recruit, retain, and integrate employees who are not members of the "Old Boys' Club."

Along with the need for diversity came the concept of "sensitivity training": well-intentioned, but not always successful, programs designed to ensure that employees knew how to properly and respectfully interact with one another. But within the PR industry - where diversity is important not only for satisfying clients, but also for understanding audiences - diversity training is taking a variety of new forms.

At Burson-Marsteller, a new diversity program led by parent companies WPP and Young & Rubicam is about to get under way. Over the next few weeks, the agency will assemble focus groups to determine what it means to "really have a culture of inclusion," notes Celia Berk, Burson's MD of human resources worldwide.

"Everything we know about diversity is that it is far beyond the traditional categories of affirmative action," Berk says. "[Programs] really aren't fully reflecting all of the demographic changes that are going on in the US."

After the focus group data is sorted, Burson will use it to help mold two key initiatives. The first is a diversity training program, Berk says, that the agency hopes will be more incisive than any that have come before. Second, Burson hopes to use the focus group information to refine its client work, positioning diversity knowledge as a "business imperative."

Michelle Deese, senior manager of diversity and talent development for Edelman, says its approach centers on integrating the idea of diversity into a fundamental set of management competencies, each drummed into employees' skill sets during "managers' boot camp." One of the program's five modules, Deese ex- plains, is about managing diverse teams and aims to be all-inclusive.

"For us, diversity isn't just about what color you are or what gender you are," Deese says. "It includes everyone. Even the white folks."

Edelman focuses its diversity efforts equally on recruitment and on making new hires comfortable when they arrive at the firm. Deese says one-third of the agency's recent summer interns were "from diverse backgrounds," an achievement she attributes directly to the personal commitment of president and CEO Richard Edelman.

"He said, 'I'm guilty of referring my friends' children for summer internships,'" recalls Deese. "And he said, 'Let's face it, they're not the ones who won't be able to get a job because they didn't have an Edelman internship.'"

Lyria Howland, president of Howland PR and chair of the PRSA's national diversity committee, says diversity is a goal that it doesn't pay to ignore.

"Workplace diversity training helps the organization leverage diversity within work teams," Howland says via e-mail, "and creates an environment where differences are valued and respected."

Key points:

Diversity and sensitivity training programs can take many different forms

Efforts should focus not only on recruitment, but on making all employees feel comfortable and respected

Focus groups can help determine the best direction for diversity training to take

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