An AllBusiness reader recently asked, “If an employer requires Diversity training which includes content that states Sexual Orientation is something out of your control and you disagree with this as a religious belief, can you respectfully decline to imply agreement by completing the course?”
“Hey Pat, I’m going to learn how to sexually harass you this morning!”
This is the kind of conversation starter I frequently hear when participants are entering a room for training on the topic of sexual harassment, particularly if the word “preventing” was not included in the course title. I facilitate lots of these classes in a variety of formats for a wide range of audiences. I am more likely to hear a lively conversation rather than nervous silence — but the topic does include content that makes many uncomfortable.
A Growing List of Protected Classes
Call it training on diversity, harassment, or discrimination and there will be attendees who don’t buy into all of the content. In states or municipalities where the list of protected classes has been expanded beyond those described in federal law, the additions can leave some people squirming. Many people don’t understand the potential biases. In addition to the federal list of protected classes, New Jersey Law Against Discrimination adds, “domestic partnership status, affectional or sexual orientation, and atypical hereditary, cellular or blood trait” as classes that employers are prohibited from discriminating against.
Attendance Does Not Require Agreement
Employees may disagree with the content. I have moderated many discussions about diversity, the nuances of workplace harassment, and discrimination and I have heard from a small number of vocal participants that they thought the entire topic was a waste of time. However, employers can require attendance at work related training on diversity, preventing harassment, and discrimination. Diversity training often includes a mixture of explanations of legal requirements and less concrete concepts.
Even when opinions are expressed, there are times when the result will be to agree to disagree. In facilitating training on business communications I discuss the negative impact of inappropriate tone of voice in the workplace, using study results to back up this assertion. In one session a company executive told me that, “Sometimes you have to scream at employees so they know you are serious.” I did not retract my recommendations.
Experienced, effective facilitators know their audience and are prepared to respond to differences in perspective. When I conduct the same diversity session for one company in multiple locations I know that the questions and concerns will be different in a rural Southern town than in a large Mid-Atlantic city. If information is presented that seems disreputable or inconsistent, participants should note this on the session evaluation and follow up with a conversation with the training coordinator. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that content meets the goals of the training since attendance can be a condition of employment.