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More companies are asking for courses to teach tolerance

Dec 8, 2009 09:16

Hate speech is rising in South Africa as the constitutional promise of "celebrating our diversity" becomes harder to achieve. Polarising rhetoric from political leaders is filtering into the workplace exacerbating tensions among employees already stressed by job losses and the financial crisis.

Liza van Wyk, CEO of major training organisation AstroTech said, “We've developed a new inhouse course on Diversity because so many clients were asking for help with escalating tensions and unhappiness in the workplace.
In the early 1990's as South Africa transited from apartheid to democracy there was a plethora of change management programmes which then fell away but now companies are reporting noticeable rises in tensions.

Division among workers hits productivity at a time when neither companies nor employees can afford any earnings losses and creates the sort of volatile strike season we saw this year."

The South African Human Rights Commission received a swathe of complaints about hate speech this year. A decision is awaited from the Equality Court about African National Congress Youth League leader Julius Malema's suggestion that Jacob Zuma's rape accuser enjoyed having sex with him. The complaint was lodged by Mbuyiselo Botha, the head of the Sonke Gender Justice non-governmental organisation.

The first case before the new court was lodged by the ever-vigilant Jewish community after White River resident; Gerhard Barkhuis painted a swastika on a wall facing the entrance to the home of his Jewish neighbour, Yaron Fishman. The phrase "spiteful bastards" was also spray-painted on the wall in Hebrew.

And last week the court ruled against Cosatu international officer, Bongani Masuku for warning Jewish parents not to send their children to serve in the Israeli army: "[The families] must not blame us if something happens to them with immediate effect," he told a crowd at the University of Witwatersrand in March. The SAHRC said his comments were "offensive and unpalatable to society." It asked Masuku to apologise to the South African Board of Jewish Deputies or be referred to the Equality Court.

Van Wyk said "Diversity management is essential to prevent and defuse workplace conflict. In South Africa companies need to attract diverse employees and provide them challenging tasks, real authority within their span of control, and the support to grow and develop. This stimulates people to stretch their skills and increase their capacity to contribute to the business-and enables companies to get the best return on their investment in human capital.

"There is endless research coming from across the world of the significant payoffs of embracing diversity. One manager, who went through diversity training, included an employee on the task force whom he wouldn't have thought of before. This person made a crucial recommendation that ended up increasing sales by over millions.
Diversity adds calculable rewards." Van Wyk said, "South Africa has a massive skills shortage but a perception from many highly qualified white people that they cannot advance in the workplace.

The country cannot afford to lose them and while affirmative action needs to be respected, a needs assessment can investigate if there is a gap in effective equity in the workplace and what interpersonal and organisational factors may be getting in the way of advancement. Once the causes are understood it is easier to put together a targeted initiative that remedies issues."

Michael C Hyter, an African American and COO of Novations Group, is an expert on diversity management, he says: "It's unlikely that problems can be solved by a blanket diversity initiative that merely trains all staff about the importance of diversity. By looking at specific problems and attempting to address them, a company will achieve greater success than it can by merely "going through the motions" of a general diversity programme. Once employees understand that the emphasis is on supporting the development of all employees, they're more likely to understand they have something to gain from the initiative and embrace its objectives."

He says: "A common mistake in addressing diversity-related issues is to assign blame or guilt for past historical ills and current mistreatment of some groups or individuals. While a particular event or mindset might be the reason why a diversity initiative was undertaken in the first place, it's not productive to single out those employees who made mistakes in the past or induce guilt for past social wrongs. The purpose of a diversity program is to foster shared responsibility for increasing understanding and improving future relationships. The purpose of a diversity initiative and diversity training should be to mobilise, not polarise. There also needs to be a system for holding people accountable. Behaviour that is clearly out of line with the expectations must be addressed quickly.

"If employees see a pattern of disrespectful behaviour that is allowed to continue, it sends a clear message about the real expectations and level of accountability. One of the most common stumbling blocks in building a diversity program is to place too much emphasis on recruitment as the solution to a lack of diversity and inclusion. While hiring more diverse employees may make it seem that the "problem is solved," just hiring people to meet a quota does not facilitate true inclusion," Hyter says.

Research by management consultants, McKinsey suggests that "The importance of change agents led by senior, inhouse staff is essential. Hiring young outsiders can derail processes. Change agents should be people destined for higher office." They say it is “critical to anticipate the reaction of existing staff to new hires in terms of diversity programmes."

Van Wyk says: "The cornerstones of diversity education are knowledge, understanding, acceptance and behaviour." She says that very often generalisations point to prejudice and barriers to acceptance and understanding, examples include these discriminatory statements:

  • Older people are resistant to change
  • Women are emotional
  • People with accents tend to be less intelligent
  • Most gay men act feminine
  • White males are more competitive than others
  • Asians are more intelligent than people from other cultural groups.

"Tolerance can be created by reading more about other groups, watching movies from non-English speaking countries, or participating in a cultural event you may not have previously experienced. Consider the areas in which you discriminate or those people you are uncomfortable with associating with and try to understand why and what you can do to reach out to those groups."

Try the habits of respect:


She observes: "December is a month of reflection, now is a good time to ponder what sort of views may make us judge others harshly or unfairly and to consider how we can and will change that conduct in 2010. We have the world's biggest sporting event taking place here in 2010 now is the time to show how harmony works in practice."

More companies are asking for courses to teach tolerance - Jacaranda 94.2 FM