Diversity Training Challenges the Co-op

If one of the core values of the cooperative is
that all individuals should be treated with respect,
is the co-op actually practicing its philosophy?

How would you describe the shoppers coming through your doors? Are they housewives, corporate business leaders, immigrants? Does your management and staff put them into categories based on how they look or act while they are shopping?

At Outpost, one of the core values of our cooperative is that all individuals should be treated with respect. When we received complaints regarding insensitive employees, we were faced with the question as to whether or not we were actually practicing our philosophy. These incidents brought us to the realization that in order to maintain our success we had to examine these concerns. We chose diversity training. "To research and develop a program to improve communications, interpersonal relations, and mutual respect" became our goal at Outpost as we sought to create a more sensitive work and retail environment.

We began by forming an ad hoc committee of two board members, the general manager and myself, the human resources manager, to implement the program. We set a timeline to meet our objectives. During this time we planned all aspects of the training, including what the training would cover, the amount we were able and willing to spend, and the logistics of getting the entire board and staff involved. We received proposals from and interviewed at least 12 different trainers. It became obvious that diversity trainers have diverse programs and price structures.

Victor Gray (of MRA -- The Management Association, Inc.) seemed to be our perfect match. He had experience with a number of local companies over the years and was within our price range. Most importantly, he was willing to adapt the training to Outpost's specific needs. It was important to us to have a trainer that understood our uniqueness as a business and was willing to focus on the goals we sought.

Our entire program consisted of four parts: a full day devoted to the training of our board and management; two three-hour sessions for staff and management, and a follow-up summary with management. I will describe in detail our two staff and management sessions.

The first session, on valuing diversity in the workplace, served a dual purpose. Our objectives were to gain an understanding of the differences that are present in the U.S. workforce and learn about barriers to diversity as well as techniques for valuing a diverse workplace. The other objective was to give the entire group a common starting point so that we could move forward together with new awareness.

For a warm-up we played a game of workplace diversity Bingo. It opened our eyes to differences within our workplace beyond those protected by state and federal law.

We were then asked to make a list of biases, stereotypes, and assumptions of the following people: a welfare mother, a corporate business executive, a housewife, a gang leader, an immigrant, and a biker. Our lists were lengthy, and everyone was able to add to them. Victor explained that this exercise was essential to the training, because in order for us to move past stereotypical assumptions, we had to agree that we had them.

We also discussed other barriers in promoting workplace diversity, including the ways we train, coach, and develop staff, written and unwritten rules of an organization, double standards, and cultural differences.

Trust is:

* hard to get

* easy to lose

* harder to regain

* only earned

* a continuous test

Our final topic hit home for many employees. In a union environment, it is not uncommon to feel an "us versus them" atmosphere between the union and management. Therefore, trust was a crucial issue for us to face. Victor made five very good points regarding trust. It is hard to get. It is easy to lose. It is even harder to regain. It must be earned. And it is a continuous test.

Session two, on communicating across cultures, took us to a new level. Our objectives were to understand what our boss, peers, and other employees really mean when they communicate, to learn techniques for giving and receiving feedback, to practice active listening habits, and to gain an understanding of different communication styles. During this session we were the actors. We explored various communication styles and identified our own styles through a simple test. Who do you think you are? A Driver? Expressive? Amiable? Analytical? It was enlightening and also fun to learn the dominant style of co-workers. It was also helpful learning ways to communicate with these different styles.

For example, I am an amiable. When I meet with someone I like to start out by asking how the person is and if they are having a good week, etc. This works perfectly when I am talking to another amiable. However, when dealing with a driver, I learned, I need to get right to the point. Now, when approaching a driver I might say something like, "I have three things to talk to you about and I need five minutes of your time to do it." The driver can quickly consider my need and usually give me the five. Try it, it works!

In one valuable exercise, we role played different scenarios involving an employee and a supervisor, a customer and a staff member, and two coworkers. A lot of thought had gone into each group's scenario. Many solutions and heated discussions arose from these role plays.

Lastly, we learned a technique called the "I message" to aid in communications of gratitude and criticism. When an "I message" is delivered, the sender focuses on a behavior (negative or positive), explains the effect of the behavior and how it makes the sender feel, and suggests how the behavior can be modified (if negative) or continued (if positive). Take a moment now to construct a message you want to deliver to someone in your life in an "I message" format.

As you can see, the second session proved both helpful and challenging! "Improved communications, interpersonal relations, and mutual respect." Did we accomplish what we set out to do? To be honest, it depends on who you ask.

Staff reactions covered the spectrum. Post-training comments ranged from "It feels good to be part of my workplace when we do things like this," to "I didn't feel like I learned much; I am already conscious of these things." One individual commented, "I learned how to look at others as people and not members of a group," while another "wished there would have been snacks." Although a minority of staff felt the first session was too basic for them, almost everyone agreed that the second session was more challenging and useful.

Our board and management appreciated the role playing exercises and discussions shared. It gave us a chance to practice work situations and see how our peers and staff would handle the same scenarios. During our summary session we were able to identify parts of our jobs that we needed to work on and learn to feel comfortable doing. We will continue to develop our skills in communicating our expectations, giving criticism, and counseling employees.

A few weeks after the training I sat in on a disciplinary meeting with a manager and a staff member. I got goose bumps as I listened to the manager use an "I statement" to express his concerns. The employee responded in a positive way and agreed to work on the issue.

As coordinator of the training, if I were to do it over again, there are a few things I would improve. First, I would have the trainer do an initial assessment of the workplace, including staff interviews. This might help us uncover additional problem areas and allow us to begin at a challenge level fit for our group. Secondly, I would have more staff and managers involved in the planning of the training to ensure commitment at a variety of levels. Without such commitment it is very difficult for everyone to grasp the importance of what we are trying to accomplish. Lastly, we need to find a way to use our newly discovered techniques and share them with new employees.

I have to admit this was not an easy training to accomplish. It took a lot of planning, attention, convincing, and follow-up. It improved upon who we are and what what we have to offer to our staff and customers, making it well worth the effort. The most important part for Outpost Natural Foods is that we began an initiative to create a more sensitive work and retail environment -- an initiative that will never end.

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