College Quarterly
Summer 1996 - Volume 3 Number 4

Diversity and Business: A Partnership Opportunity for Colleges

by Wayne D. Milroy


The contemporary work-world is a turbulent and dynamic place, and today's workplace has undergone a depth and breadth of change that has many of us reeling. New economic forces are quickly shrinking the world. Even established transnational enterprises are re-assessing their strategic perceptions of their place in the global marketplace, and corporations preparing to compete in this international marketplace are rethinking the skills their workforces will need.

Not least among the skills needed to face these challenges will be the ability to function within diverse populations. The "marketplace is made up of all races, religions and sexual orientations," as IBM chief Louis V. Gerstner has said, "and therefore it is vital to our success that our workforce also be diverse" (in Rice, 1994: 79). New globalizing economic forces are creating conditions in which the most productive organizations, that is those able to develop competitive advantage, will be those which embrace diversity among their workers.

Many companies are currently struggling to manage diversity issues successfully and expending an increasing amount of time and money, but only 3-5% of corporations are effective in diversifying their workforces. Corporations continue their efforts to implement effective training for current employees not from altruistic impulse alone, but because there is a growing realization that diversity directly contributes to the bottom line.

With that understanding, it is predictable that farsighted corporations are increasingly seeking to acquire workforce skills which enable employees to operate effectively in a diverse world, just as these firms have sought language, computer, and negotiating attributes.

Ontario community colleges have historically been linked to the business world by a mandate and structure which ensured responsiveness to the needs of local employers. Students sought skills that were required in the local economy, and colleges sought to fulfill the needs of regional industry. Many resident populations of college communities were highly homogeneous, an environment reflected in college curricula tied to industrial-age job requirements and anachronistic perceptions of the skills needed to succeed in a globalizing economy.

Corporations must maintain productivity while adding diversity skills to their human resources assets. In Canada and particularly in Ontario, the most effective mechanism for that purpose is the community college. By including diversity training in their curricula, community colleges provide students with increasingly vocationally-significant skills, create outreach initiatives and enrich contractual and continuing education programs, all of which support the colleges' traditional mandates and strengthen their service to their students and the larger community alike.

I believe that business will continue to be supportive of such initiatives, first because the cognitive and forensic skills associated with diversity management are very useful in the work-world, but also because community college-level diversity training reduces the corporate training burden.

Some community colleges have already introduced diversity training to their campuses. However, as the current literature shows, these courses are too often a response to an immediate crisis, concentrate on campus-based issues, and are usually narrowly directed toward training the institutions' own faculty and staff.

What I propose is a focus on curriculum intended to strengthen cognitive awareness and develop diversity management skills in students. For those many students so anxious to be well-prepared for the world of work that the relevance of such "soft" subject matter seems suspect, I offer this rationale: the ability to manage oneself in a diverse setting is a marketable asset, and the competencies needed to do this must be developed in the same direct way that we develop mathematics and computer skills.

College administrators might start to do that by incorporating diversity courses within the many other components of the present curriculum which impart portable skills, like communicating clearly, participating in work-groups, organizing, consensus-building, and negotiating. These are all required attributes of an effective human relations environment. They are consistent with the very popular corporate doctrine of Total Quality Management, the success of which depends on developing a corporate culture of shared values, beliefs, and ideas.

However, those attributes are unattainable unless employees at all levels have the basic skills to understand and absorb their significance. And to be relevant to the reality of the working world facing most of their graduates, the community colleges should be places where those skills can be learned.

Haughton argues that there continues to be a considerable gap between the official goals of multicultural education and its actual practice, which has so often been ineffective. Nevertheless, he argues that the educational system must continue its central role in dismantling the barriers experienced by many groups (Haughton, 1986: 23-4). Progress requires our educational institutions to abandon the adjunctive piece-meal approaches of the past in favor of addressing diversity issues as a curriculum matter deserving close attention. In practice, instead of teaching diversity skills to relatively small numbers of students, the colleges could recognize the significance of those skills for all work-related programs.

The current literature reveals that most diversity education has almost exclusively addressed consciousness-raising and has neglected skills-building. It must be recognized that a new diversity curriculum needs to balance both of these components. Adequate diversity education "must be embedded into the fabric of the overall curriculum and programmatic structure, content and delivery, and infused into the total teaching and learning climate of an institution" (Tsunoda, 1994: 3).

This "informed curriculum" must include both cognitive and skill components. The two approaches are interdependent and cross-reinforcing, and should be aimed at reaching what Foeman has identified as five behavioral outcomes: (a) demystifying issues, (b) listening to other groups' perspectives, (c) investigating other groups' perspectives, (d) finding validity in other groups' perspectives, and (e) utilizing other groups' perspectives to achieve common goals effectively (Foeman, 1991: 256).

A key first step in dealing with diversity education lies in understanding attitudes, beliefs and behaviors to help students reveal unconscious cultural assumptions and biases; Garcia, Wright and Corey argue that cultural sensitivity will increase as "students and practitioners recognize their limitations resulting from their cultural bias and are willing to expand their perceptions," and that "avoiding cultural tunnel vision involves examining expectations, attitudes and assumptions about working with various groups" (Garcia et al,1991: 86-7).

To increase student knowledge, understanding and sensitivity to diversity, it is important to discuss values and encourage students to see diversity as a natural element of the society in which they live and work. While that requires discussion strategies which uncover bias, it is imperative that such enquiries remain non-judgmental and encourage self-expression. The objectives and typical methods used for these purposes are:

  1. To increase knowledge of diversity and familiarity with behaviors and the underlying reasons, principles and beliefs that foster them, students might research and report on particular cultural or ethnic groups.
  2. To expose assumptions and biases, students might examine the ways their beliefs, attitudes and values cause differences in perception, identifying both commonalities and diversities as the product of expectations and assumptions.
  3. To challenge attitudes and values, opportunities must be presented for discuss and debate among students, so that they gain direct experience of others' viewpoints through the articulation of personal views.
  4. To amend myths and stereotypes, students should be given the opportunity to reflect on how they come to hold individual views, and how new knowledge is integrated in perspective.
  5. To encourage individual and group dialogue, the expression of views must take place in a non-combative, non-threatening environment in which students find opportunity for both self-expression and providing assistance to others in articulating issues, recognizing honest differences of opinion, and forging alliances.
  6. To develop mutual respect, students should be encouraged to distinguish between recognizing and accomodating differences and maintaining one's own traditions, values and beliefs; respect for others should always exceed mere tolerance and be based in confidence and self-respect.
  7. To understand the changing nature of the criteria used to judge a thinking person; participants need to begin realizing that they are judged by others, in part, by the views they express and the beliefs they hold (see Fullinwider, 1993: 4).

It is important to begin by looking at the nature and extent to which participants may be judged suitable by potential employers based upon external criteria. Students need to examine current social, political and business climates and seek to determine whether their expressed views and beliefs are compatible with current thinking.

Such a purposeful examination of culture provides an insight into the nature and causes of many daily behaviors. By realizing that many such behaviors are the products of cultural contexts, validation of those actions can begin, and divergent ways can be seen as differences rather than deficiencies (see Fullinwider, 1993: 11). However, as New York City consultant Richard Orange says: "Diversity training is like hearing a good sermon on Sunday. You must practice what you heard during the week" (in Rice, 1994: 84). We can liken the cognitive to the content of a sermon, but we must try to practice what is preached. Diversity curriculum must possess a strong skills-based component and examine the behavioral aspects of diversity. The two are closely related, because building skills is reliant upon an increased self-awareness.

"Skill-based training " observe Carnevale and Stone (1994: 30), "represents a progression in intent. It goes beyond consciousness-raising, to an effort at providing workers with a set of skills to enable them to deal effectively with workplace diversity - be it in the role of manager or the role of employee. Students must not be left without guidance to develop such skills after graduation.

The skill-based curriculum component should provide tools which promote successful interaction and attempt to: (a) build new skills for interacting; (b) reinforce existing skills; and (c) inventory other available methods. Determining the exact mix of necessary skills will never yield an exact equation but will always be a volatile and ever-changing dynamic to which colleges and business will always need to respond. Some skills, however, seem fundamental:

Intercultural Communication:

Students need to investigate the culturally learned tendencies that directly affect communication patterns. Study of intercultural communication helps to remove barriers between groups caused by inadequate contact, semantic differences, cultural filters, and distorted perceptions of written and spoken as well as body language. Students would have the opportunity to practice such communication skills and develop a sensitivity to the effects that gestures, perceptual differences, social distance and inadequate language fluency have upon intercultural settings.

Monitoring and Modifying Language.

The self-monitoring and modification of language which could be seen by others as insensitive, racist or sexist is important. Everyday presentation of oneself provides the basis of all communication and its subsequent interpretation. It is necessary to study the implications of certain words and phrases from the other's perspective and to become familiar with alternate manners of expressing oneself in a non-threatening and inoffensive way.

Critical Thinking.

Thinking critically is to have an understanding about how one organizes and processes data and draws conclusions. Students need to distinguish facts about others from personally-held cultural assumptions or beliefs. Students need to explore the powerful impact of emotions, values and personal experience in shaping their opinions (Lankard, 1994: 3).

Identifying Sources of Personal Discomfort.

Students need to seek the sources of their own personal discomfort in diverse settings. This will help them differentiate between personal uneasiness and fundamental disagreements with others. That allows students to sort through facts, long-held assumptions and personal experiences to reassess behavioral strategies which are appropriate to the situation, and not merely a response to their own discomfort level. Communicating these feelings of discomfort with others can lessen uneasiness and reduce any sense of isolation.

Cross-Cultural Understanding.

Cross-cultural understanding encompasses how and why culturally different groups act as they do, and that awareness helps develop respect for differences. Students should develop research skills in order to access information useful in understanding unfamiliar cultures, which helps determine appropriate strategies for interaction. Through exposure to other cultures and through experiences designed to promote understanding, students see a view of the world which is different from their own, but which deserves validation; that viewpoint does not require acceptance, but does compel respect.

Facilitating Group Activities.

With most organizations increasingly focusing on the benefits of enhanced teamwork, prospects and successful employees will need a solid understanding of the mechanisms through which work-groups function most effectively. Learning how that's done can be developed by allowing students opportunity to negotiate and resolve conflict through mediation and negotiation in a variety of model and game settings. Teamwork skills and a heightened awareness of the potential for cross-cultural misunderstanding is essential in a multicultural workplace, and needs to form a fundamental component in diversity curriculum.

Flexibility or 'Adaptability.

Flexibility or 'adaptability' allows for the adjustment of expectations, norms, and alternatives, and increases patience. These qualities will become ever more important as employees increasingly have to adjust to the challenge of rapidly-changing work environments. To provide opportunities to learn adaptability, students can be placed in a variety of situations in which flexible and moderate response in creative problem-solving is particularly rewarded. Constructing situations requiring complex, rapidly-evolving strategies and tolerance for ambiguous results, simulates real-life conditions.

Recognizing The Role Of Teamwork In The Diverse Workplace.

Curriculum and instructional methodology needs to draw persistent and direct references to the use of diversity skills in the workplace. The growth of participative management (especially in the private sector) and the increased flattening of organizational hierarchies suggests that in the near future, success at work will depend upon ability to work in self-directed work teams, often drawn from a multicultural pool of talents.

Corporate managers increasingly understand the importance of making people work better together in an environment in which work is frequently done in teams. It must be emphasized to students that diversity skills have direct application to a workplace which demands participative teamwork, and that learning these skills in school will allow greater empowerment and provides advantage in working with culturally diverse populations (Lankin, 1994: 4).

There may be a considerable range of other skills deemed desirable, including: the ability to monitor one's own changing assumptions about others, understanding the destructiveness of stereotyping, developing a commitment to share in constructive dialogues, readily sharing information with others, being receptive to innovation, and encouraging others toward full participation and personal growth. The mix of necessary skills will evolve as the workplace struggles to become more adept at handling such challenges, and a diversity curriculum will have to change to meet those demands.

But one cardinal rule must remain: that curriculum must maintain a careful balance between academic inquiry and pragmatic needs. No long-term positive effect can be created without addressing underlying attitudes and beliefs through the academy; likewise, no academic enquiry is a substitute for real-life experience. To the extent that diversity skills education can draw upon students' lives to help simulate the work-place and students can be habituated to dealing constructively with the everyday problems of the work-world, such efforts will have been worthwhile.

A diversity curriculum provides real human relations competencies, helps create student confidence, and better prepares students for the work-world. Effective corporate managers in both the private and public sectors now understand the significance of a positive human resources environment, in helping employees realize individual potential, in increasing their value to the organization, and in maximizing productivity. Community colleges which have strong diversity curricula can better attract students and the support of business, because they are providing skills urgently needed in the workplace. And those colleges will provide students with a competitive edge in their efforts to find good employment, and to succeed in the work they do.


Rice, Faye (1994). "Managing" Fortune. 130: 3 (August).

Haughton, Harry S. (1986). "Reproducing Visible Minority Exclusion from the Ontario School Curriculum: An Ethnography of Educational Processes." Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Ontario Educational Research Council (Toronto, December 5-6).

Tsunoda, Joyce S. (1994). "Community Colleges Lead the Way in International and Intercultural Education." Paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the Association of Community Colleges (Washington, DC, April 6-9).

Foeman, Anita Kathy (1991). "Managing Multicultural Institutions: Goals and Approaches for Race Relations Training." Community Education 40: 3 (July).

Garcia, Mikel H., Jerome W. Wright and Gerald Corey (1991). "A Multicultural Perspective in an Undergraduate Human Services Program." Journal of Counseling and Development. 70: 1 (October/November).

Fullinwider, Robert K. (1993). Multiculturalism: Themes and Variations. Washington DC: Council for Basic Education.

Carnevale A.P., and Susan C. Stone (1994). "Diversity: Beyond the Golden Rule," Training and Development. 48: 10 (October).

Lankard, Bettina A. (1994). Cultural Diversity and Teamwork. Washington DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Wayne D. Milroy is a business consultant with extensive experience teaching at the college level in Ontario, Canada.


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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1996 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology