I have been retired a little over four years. I love retirement, and I love I get to do it with my very sweet husband. Although I am retired, every so often I get to dip my toes back into Human Resources. As I am writing this, I am sitting in my hotel room in Wisconsin killing time before I have to drive to the airport to return home.
The past two days I have conducted five sessions of Diversity and Inclusion training to a company in southern Wisconsin. This was mandatory training for this company. I met their Human Resources Manager about 15 years ago when I was her professor at Lindenwood University. We have kept our connection over the years, both serving on the board of the St. Louis Chapter of the National Human Resources Association. We called it NHRA, but not to be confused with the National Hot Rod Association, who actually owns those initials! Paula moved to Wisconsin several years ago, and when the opportunity to have diversity and inclusion training came up, she contacted me and asked if I wanted to come to Wisconsin to present. I jumped at the chance. I love being retired more than being employed, but I also truly loved my career in Human Resources, and I jump at the chance to occasionally serve as a consultant and/or trainer for some company that needs a bit of extra help.
As these employees filed into the training room, I could tell that they were there to check off the box of the required training. What they didn’t know is that I would involve them to participate and connect with their fellow employees. I also promised them that I would not be boring, and if I became boring and they were on the verge of falling asleep, they should raise their hand to remind me to pep up the session. I did two training sessions of shift workers who had just completed their full shift and were being paid to stick around an extra hour for training. They were willing to do so, and I could tell that they had less energy than the participants of the other sessions.
What they didn’t expect is that I would share with them that everyone sitting in this training room was special and unique, and not one person in the room was exactly like the other. We bring our whole selves to work, not just our outer appearance. We have cultural differences, and whole life experiences, be it education, another country we were born, values, religion, and personalities which make us different and unique individuals.
What they also didn’t expect is that I would tell them about myself, and how I probably don’t fit the picture they have of me in their head from just meeting me. I showed them a few photos on my PowerPoint presentation. The first was the photo my dad’s passport picture, and I explained where he was born, and the language he spoke, I showed them a photo of my sisters and me with our great grandmother, who came to America when she was 73 years old, was deaf and only spoke German, and yet we communicated with this language barrier with much love. Then I show my great grandparents on my mother’s side. I told about them coming to America. I explained I had grandparents who spoke two languages, each side a different first language. I am also different and unique, just as everyone in the room is. I am sure they had a different view of me from their first impressions when the session began.
I then kicked into an exercise in which everyone, and I mean everyone, participated. They got into groups, but I made them count off to work in groups so that they might be with someone they didn’t know as well. I figured they were sitting with their friends, and it was time to expand their horizons. Everyone moved around the room to their designated groups. The first thing was to figure out what they had in common with everyone in their group. Some found these similarities easily, and some groups really struggled to find something that all 3-4 of them had in common. Nevertheless, they did find something and usually a few things. Then I had them each share with their group what was unique or special about themselves. Some were quick to share those things, and others had difficulty finding things to say. I helped them with ideas, hobbies, where you live, what you like to eat, family, sports interests, etc. All this information was written on a big flower. The middle was everything they had in common, and the petals were things that were distinctive about each person—they each were one petal of the flower. I wanted them to see that without those unique petals on the flower, that flower wouldn’t be that pretty flower we see. We need the center to the flower, but we also need the petals.
Throughout this exercise, there was a lot of talking and laughter as they were trying to find those things they relate to. When they were complete, each group shared their commonalities. There wasn’t a group that didn’t have something in common outside of work! That is always our starting point. We always try to find a connection to start a conversation. Then we can start to learn about others as we see them as unique individuals with different, backgrounds, culture, interests, and thoughts. We learn to appreciate them for who they are, not for just their outward appearance that we first see.
Of course, we went into the dynamics of bias, prejudice, stereotypes and generalizations. What does one do when they hear something that is hurtful? What does one do when they put their foot in their mouth and say the wrong thing? We put together our toolbox of skills one can use in these situations—what to say, with respect, in these situations.
The training sessions were fun for me, and I think everyone took away practical skills they can use everyday, not only at work, but everywhere they go. I was pleased to hear that as the HR Manager was walking down the hall, she overheard in someone’s office a conversation where they actually tried out one of these toolbox skills.
Not everyone will go out feeling inspired to practice these skills, but it is there for them. We don’t live in a perfect world, and every one of us will, at some time or the other, put our foot in our mouth and say something that may offend or hurt someone. We also discussed the skills to acknowledge and apologize.
I would love to think everyone will go out holding hands and skipping, but this world is real. We will always have something we will disagree about with someone. We will always be put in situations where we have to interact with people who are nothing like us. The key, though, is respect. We accept that there are those who are different than us, and it is okay, and we learn to respect and value them.
Once again, I go back to my personal ignition statement (the thing that catches me on fire), and a vision statement for my life:
I want to enjoy each day to the fullest, show love to others, be a light to those who want direction, accepting others where they are, being their cheerleader, showing passion, forgiveness, love and connection. My Life Vision is: To let others know they are not alone in their challenges, they have value and worth and a voice. I want to be surrounded by those I love and enjoy the grace of their love to reach out and share it with others.
What a privilege it was to share how we can love, care, respect, (you fill in the word that works for you), everyone on this planet—all were created in God’s image, and deserve our respect.