Every diversity trainer I know presents some version of “dimensions of diversity” during an awareness class.  That means they show some kind of list of diversity dimensions that include but go beyond the legally protected categories, thus making the point that diversity is not just about race and gender.

For me, it’s a favorite part of diversity awareness training because it lets everyone, including white males, know that they are included in the diversity initiative.  Everyone is diverse in some way, whether it be because of their educational background, values and worldview, skills and abilities, or the way they were brought up.  During my review of dimensions, we talk about everything from eating habits to time-consciousness, making a number of points about diversity as we go along:

1.  We tend to overvalue some dimensions.  For example, during a hiring initiative we think we must have someone from Harvard or Yale because that’s where our top managers have always come from; in the process of overvaluing a dimension, we unintentionally screen out worthy candidates and limit ourselves in the effort to find the best and brightest candidate out there.  We need to learn to think (and recruit) outside the box.

2. We tend to use some dimensions as “shortcuts.”  Sometimes these shortcuts can be useful, for instance when we assume it might be best to show up on time for a first meeting with a person with military background, but most of the time they lead to stereotyping.   One employee is married with kids and the other is single, so we assume the single one doesn’t mind business travel and the married one does and we assign the new account to the single person.  Sometimes it’s challenging to make the distinction between learning more about a dimension of diversity, and stereotyping.  I always make the point that learning more about, say, the Muslim faith, for a Christian, is a matter of generating a starting point.  Now that I know a little something about this religious dimension, I can get to know this person individually and find out what makes them different beyond their faith.

3.  Lastly, that all dimensions of diversity can add value if we create the right environment, an environment where everyone can let their difference contribute to the success of our mission.  Examples abound, especially in for-profit organizations; are you tapping your gay and lesbian employees for ideas on how to reach the GLBT marketplace?  Are you asking your disabled employees how to market to disabled customers?  Are you gaining insight into what kinds of products smokers buy from your smoking employees?  The list goes on, and it is really no different in a public sector organization.  The public they serve is still made up of all the same dimensions of diversity, and in order to serve them well, we need to mirror that diversity and let the organization learn from it.

I often get pushback from workshop participants who say that all these dimensions “shouldn’t” matter in the workplace.  We should all be  blind and treat everyone the same.  I generally respond by making the point that we’re not all the same, and if we pretend we are, we miss out on valuable opportunities to understand and serve our customer base or public more effectively.

For those who do diversity training out there, what other lessons do you derive from your presentation of dimensions?  What objections and questions do you tend to get, and what have you learned from it over the years?

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