USDA Sensitivity Training released video of a sensitivity training session for USDA employees that has stirred up a fair bit of controversy.  Criticism centers around:

      • mandatory attendance for all employees,
      • cost, particularly since this training is paid for with taxpayer dollars
      • content and training methods that appear to be extreme, and representing a particular worldview
So what can we learn from the ruckus over the USDA training?  After 13 years of providing Sensitivity Training programs to private and public companies and numerous federal agencies, and as a Federal GSA Supply Contract Holder myself, I offer the following response:

Required attendance is the right call. It communicates a clear message of company values and expectations, and in helps the organization to avail itself of legal protections.  The costs of training are a small investment compared to the legal fees, lost management and executive time, and lowered morale that accompany harassment complaints.  Effective sensitivity training does not advance any particular world view but rather equips employees and management with the skills needed to thrive in the modern workplace.

In this post, I’ll address the first criticism regarding the mandatory nature of the program and will address concerns about cost and content in subsequent posts.Mandatory attendance is the right call for the organization.  Having all members of the workplace participate insures all contributors are aware of what the law and the organization expects of them and how to handle any concerns someone may have. Having all contributors attend helps to build an organization’s “affirmative defense” should litigation arise. Most importantly, when training is done properly, with a focus on BEHAVIORS and not beliefs, it helps to build a workplace environment where claims and litigation are less likely to arise, and where colleagues have a shared language with which to address the challenges present in all workplaces.

Sensitivity skills are not “optional,” rather they are part of the fundamental skill set necessary to successfully navigate the modern workplace.  

The fundamental skill set includes: (a)  an understanding and respect for the employment laws that govern the workplace; (b) understanding how our words and actions are received by others; (c) using conflict resolution methods to address small problems before they become larger; (d) how to utilize company procedures and seek assistance from HR when appropriate.

Effective organizations – those that can deliver on their mission (be that manufacturing cars, providing services, or regulating the safety of meat) set clear expectations of appropriate workplace standards and share a common language for communication.   Every office and organization has its own unique culture, norms, and vocabulary – in short, your office has “the way we do things.”

Think of various places you have worked and how different the environments were from one place to the next.  A joke that would be completely normal and accepted at X Co. might be completely out of place at Y Inc. because of the different cultures.  It is the responsibility of the organization’s leadership to establish and nurture a culture and language that supports its mission, reduces legal liability, and equips its workers to be as productive as possible.

Workplace cultures are established through leadership (or lack thereof) and training is the most direct and effective means of communicating the expectations and standards of the organization.

There is also the bottom line legal reality that federal employment laws afford certain protections against various harassment claims if the organization shows it has taken steps to educate its workforce and create an environment where harassment is not tolerated.  Mandatory training and the communication of clear behavioral expectations is perhaps the most effective way an organization can demonstrate it has taken these steps, and avail itself of the protections the law makes available.

In the next post I’ll address the costs related to mandatory training, and why it is a wise investment.

NEXT USDA Part 2 – Cost & ROI ==> 

DB Pargman Consulting LLC is the leading specialized provider of One-to-One Executive Sensitivity Training and Group Diversity & Sensitivity Training. When an organization and it’s Key People face conflicts, accusations, or potential litigation relating to diversity or sensitivity issues, DB Pargman provides prompt and remedial responses that meet expectations of legal compliance, and perhaps more importantly, restore and enhance the performance of Key People. The firm provides trainings through live one-to-one individual executive sessions, live class-room group sessions, live online virtual sessions, and follow-up ongoing executive coaching. Based out of Atlanta, Georgia, DB Pargman has served a national client base of businesses, educational institutions, and governmental agencies for over 13 years.  DB Pargman Consulting LLC is Federal GSA Schedule Contract Holder.

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