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CAREERS: TRAINING MANUAL | DIVERSITY TRAINING

Finding the Right Fit

Before you engage a consultant to lead sessions for your employees, check out the person's background and methods.

May 19, 1997|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So controversial has diversity training become that even trainers who respect each other sometimes find themselves at loggerheads over whether such courses cause more harm than good.

Such is the case with Stephen M. Paskoff and David Tulin, two sought-after trainers who speak highly of each other and who have occasionally shared a podium to lecture on workplace diversity and fair employment practices.

Last August, an article titled "Ending the Workplace Diversity Wars," written by Paskoff, president of Atlanta-based Employment Learning Innovations, appeared in the trade magazine Training. It lambasted diversity training for emphasizing differences among workers and leaving employers open to discrimination lawsuits.

Paskoff, a former trial attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, also blasted many of today's diversity programs as "not only a waste of valuable time that could be more productively spent," but also as failures that "actually increase the risks of stereotyping, divisiveness and illegal treatment."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the article ignited a controversy. Among the critics was Tulin, head of Philadelphia-based Tulin DiversiTeam Associates, who complained in a letter to Training's editor that Paskoff's article "bashes diversity training through stereotypes and extreme examples that would make Pat Buchanan proud."

Paskoff says he is mystified by the criticism. The goal of training, he said in a recent interview, should be to "build a culture within your company where people are viewed as citizens irrespective of whether they are women, blacks, Asian or whatever." Familiarize employees with fair-employment-practices law, emphasize that discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated, and then get on with business, Paskoff urges.

But Tulin, who describes his company as specializing in "excellence through diversity and sexual harassment prevention," says Paskoff's approach is dangerous.

Tulin says he encourages companies to reach beyond complying with the law to aggressively mentor women and minorities, to provide internships and to sensitize employees to cultural, ethnic and sex-based differences in the workplace.

Although mistakes have been made by inexperienced or wrong-headed trainers in the past, Tulin insists, this baby is entirely too important to be thrown out with the bathwater.

"Steve is focusing on just one piece, on trying to stop people from doing dumb things," Tulin said over bagels and eggs in a San Francisco coffee shop. "It is very dangerous to just have them stop doing dumb things. Our goal is to start people talking about things in a sensitive manner. Diversity is about how to empower people, not just 'Here's what you never do.' "

Beverly Powell, director of Diversity and People Development at Phoenix-based Dial, the soap company, has consulted with both men in the last two years to fashion Dial's diversity training program and revamp its employment policies and practices. Powell said she was shocked by the differences that emerged in the pages of Training.

"I have always thought that Stephen and David's approaches complement each other," Powell said. "I really respect Stephen, and I think that David Tulin walks on water."

The Paskoff-Tulin dispute, both men agreed in separate interviews, is indicative of the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the whole question of diversity training, which has become commonplace since its introduction to the American workplace in the late 1980s.

Horror stories abound of companies that called in trainers expecting them to ease tensions between diverse groups, only to end up with a work force more deeply divided than ever. The trainers would, in many cases, lead a few let-it-all-hang-out-sessions that brought differences to the surface, then offer no concrete directions for working through those differences and returning the employees' focus to improving the workplace atmosphere and increasing productivity.

Diversity trainers, Tulin said only half in jest, "need a Hippocratic oath. We should do no harm. You have no right to go in and increase the problems. You must go in and make people feel safe and ready to change, because this is really about change."

Below is a compendium of advice on what a company should look for if it decides to turn to a consultant for help in diversity training. The tips synthesize pointers from Paskoff, the diversity training skeptic; Tulin, the diversity training enthusiast; and Powell, the human resources specialist who has made diversity training work for one large company.

Managers may want to ask themselves these questions before beginning a search for a trainer, and keep them in mind as they begin conducting interviews.

* What is it that you are trying to accomplish?

This question, all three agree, should be asked by upper management before it ever begins a search for a consultant, then asked again of the consultant.

Often, companies are "all over the map" about what they mean by diversity, Paskoff said.

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