Younger readers may need to Google the phrase “set it and forget it,” made popular by Ron Popeil and his rotisserie cooker. The nighttime infomercials were attractive to people who were so busy with everything else in our lives that we needed something simple to make sure we cooked great meals without having to spend too much time preparing them.

Oh, if life were as simple in corporate training!

In today’s heated conversations over racial bias awareness and everything else that makes us different, training professionals are tasked with helping businesses cultivate workplace cultures that remain safe for everyone. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have to agree on everything, but a lack of awareness on how our comments or actions affect others can ultimately create a hostile work environment. So, how do we train on and address the sensitive topics that have the ability to divide and destroy the teams we work with? Purposefully and carefully.

Start With Mission and Core Values

When a company has a strong mission that speaks to how it treats people and serves clients, it gives employees something to live up to. Training professionals who help their organizations stay on mission have a much easier time discussing sensitive topics. A clear mission helps us craft our training around a solid foundation. Along with strong core values, it gives managers something to coach employees on and something to use when and if corrective feedback is necessary.

Without a clear mission or core values, it is difficult for training professionals to encourage the kinds of actions and thought processes that minimize damaging behavior. If the organization you work with does not have a mission statement or core values in place, you have an additional opportunity to be of service.

Ask Empowering Questions

When leading a training session on an emotional or heated topic, a trainer’s ability to direct — and, in some cases, redirect — the conversation can be a game-changer. Here are some questions to encourage trainers to use:

    • Reframing questions (e.g., “What can you learn from this?”) help learners find new perspectives, see past obstacles and stop feeling like victims.
    • Focusing questions (e.g., “What is the first thing you need to do?”) help direct learners toward an action or outcome.
    • Expanding questions (e.g., “What would you do if …?”) help learners understand how different options might lead to different outcomes.
    • Open-ended questions (e.g., “How do you feel about …?”) can help trainers gain a better understanding of what their learners are trying to share with them.
    • Reflective questions (e.g., “You said …; may I ask you why?”) can help learners uncover and reflect on their own thoughts and beliefs.

The better trainers are at asking questions, the more they can help learners see a variety of perspectives.

Don’t Add Fuel to the Fire

In today’s world, with the delicate social issues we face, we have to tread lightly, without missing an opportunity to help steer teams in the direction of taking care of each other. Discussing topics like bias, harassment and culture takes finesse, and expert opinions vary on how it should happen.

In a May 2018 article for Workforce.com, Susana Rinderle wrote, “’Sensitivity training’ rarely provides people with clear behavioral guidelines and communication skills. It can encourage an eggshell-walking culture that reinforces a power imbalance and the patronizing notion that non-dominant groups (women, people of color, LGBTQ, etc.) are fragile and need special handling.”

On the other hand, a July 2019 article published by Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business stated, “Managers who can lead diverse teams, build cultural sensitivity among their employees, and can manage and redirect conflict will continue to be among the most sought-after.”

So, how do we help the companies and the teams we serve do both: have a great workplace culture where they are not walking around on eggshells while at the same time being surrounded by diverse team members who respect and work well together?

Help Build an Intentional Culture of Acceptance

Building this type of culture is a task that takes daily, weekly, monthly and yearly effort. No “set it and forget it” tools will work. To have the kind of workplace that invites, encourages and accepts people from diverse cultures and backgrounds, with varied belief systems, we have to start with the premise that we are all just people, and we all want the same things: to be respected, to belong and to be valued. Every related training should emphasize that a lack of any of these elements goes against company culture.

For example, in an employee handbook, one of my clients stated that “any type of harassment is grounds for immediate termination.” During my training time with the team, we discussed this statement openly and helped to clarify the company’s stand on harassment.

As training professionals, we can also bring additional value to the companies that rely on us by providing some tips and tools to help in this area. Let’s pick a lighter example to illustrate this point: If team members meander into the office late, and no one takes any action, soon, arriving late is the norm, and it is harder to eliminate that norm from the workplace.

Simply telling team members not to be late is OK, but training and coaching them can reduce frustration overall. As trainers, we can also provide some basic communication guidelines aimed towards addressing concerns right away. For example, here is a three-step plan I recently provided to one of my clients:

    1. If you are offended by someone, don’t let it slide. When the two of you can have a quick conversation, ask the person what he or she meant by that comment. In many cases, you will find that there has been a misunderstanding.
    2. If the offensive comments or actions continue, bring in a member of the management team.
    3. Refuse to work in an environment where management condones any type of bias or harmful activity. If no one will work for organizations do not treat people correctly, they will not stay in business.

In a perfect world, we would not have to worry about people reacting negatively to our differences, but we do not live in a perfect world. Training professionals have a unique opportunity to level the playing field in any work environment by starting with the basics presented here.

Chickens might do well with the “set it and forget it” mindset (I know my family loved those dinners!). But our teams (and our world) require our ongoing and purposeful commitment to preventing harmful biases from infiltrating our workplaces.

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