The United States military is currently undergoing one of the most Dilbert-esque rites of workplace life: diversity training. While such training may get universal respect as one of those Things All Leaders Should Do, it’s so often carried out with such dull banality that it’s become fodder for episodes of The Office. Watching a video tape of shoulder pad-wearing ‘80s office workers telling mild racist jokes or making dated come-ons by the water cooler is hardly a way to get employees to take seriously what is still a very real problem.
The armed forces’ training, of course, is in response to the end of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy toward gays in the military, and a requirement of the new law that will allow homosexuals to serve openly. The sessions started in February for chaplains and lawyers, then spread to officers and, now, to rank and file members. According to the Post’s Ed O’Keefe, who sat in on a training session for Marines recently, the classes have been filled with professionalism and respect, lacking smirks, eye-rolling or jokes about the sensitive subject matter. Rather, the Marines appear to be highly engaged in the sessions.
If so, is there something other workplaces can learn from the military’s training efforts? Perhaps. For one, the military had a tangible and pressing need for the sessions, something that’s lacking in most corporate and organizational diversity training. A new law that could change the culture and daily life of U.S. service members is about to be enacted, and as a result, the information in the classes is immediately applicable and inherently useful. All too often, leaders trot out diversity training on the advice of their legal department, creating something that’s transparently preventative rather than particularly relevant. While such training shouldn’t be reactive, following an insensitive action or harassment claim, employees should at least be told why the company feels the training is important to have now.
In addition, the military is taking the right approach by training officers first, and then following that with classes for the front line. By getting buy-in from senior management first, respect and attention from the rank and file is easier to come by, too. Employees are more likely to appreciate something they know their leaders have had to go through first.
Finally, the scenarios the armed forces are using in the curriculum appear to be applicable to soldiers’ daily lives. While I haven’t seen the videos or classroom materials the military is using, it does seem as if the trainers are using real potential scenarios troops could find themselves in rather than depicting off-color jokes or comments no one can imagine being uttered in the last 20 years. What’s gotten Marines engaged, an officer told O’Keefe, is that the training focuses on “how it will affect their daily lives.”
No doubt there were inevitably snickers behind the scenes, and plenty of Marines who would not tell a Washington Post reporter how they really felt about the training at hand. And yes, the hierarchical nature of the armed services surely keeps professional respect on display and any detractors mum. But by having a tangible reason for the training, putting higher-ups through the sessions first, and creating a curriculum that speaks to the daily lives of soldiers, the military’s diversity training in response to the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” stands a better chance than many other programs for making a real impact and getting the undivided attention of those who need it most.
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