Diversity act

Public sector organisations in the West Midlands borough of Telford & Wrekin are using a play and theatrical workshops to deliver diversity training to staff. A total of 15 local public sector employers have joined forces to offer the training through Paradoxos Theatre, a company that specialises in producing theatre for the workplace. Called Forum Theatre, the project challenges the issues and perceptions surrounding diversity – including race, sexual orientation and disability – with the aim of stimulating debate.

“We wanted to take a fresh look at how we deliver diversity training and get a better understanding of the diversity agenda,” says Paul Birch, diversity manager for The Wrekin Housing Trust. “It is about involving people and listening to things from other people’s perspectives.”

It was not just the 15 partnership organisations that were involved – the local community took part as well, giving their views on what diversity means to them, what the issues are and how the public services they receive match up. “We had to get across to staff the actual community’s view of diversity as well,” Birch explains.

The whole process began with a two-week research session. Led by Paradoxos Theatre, 500 partnership employees and people from the local community participated in workshops to assess what the important issues were. Once they had been identified, Paradoxos Theatre devised a two-hour play called Hidden Voices, which explored various areas of diversity.

The main ones, according to one of the company’s artistic directors, Michael Woodward, were race, sexual orientation and disability. Others included transexualism, sexual harassment, mental health issues and local community issues, such as low-income families, single parents, and ethnic tensions between different community groups.

Woodward says that structuring the research in this way, with so much input from local employers and community members, meant the play was very powerful and pertinent to the audience. Many of the lines that people heard in the play were lines that were actually uttered during the research sessions. Even for people with a keen awareness of diversity issues, such as Steve Wellings, corporate director of resources, at the council, this heightened the impact of the play.

“I could recognise some of the things that I had been saying coming out in the play,” he says. “It makes you recognise that no matter how good you think you are at equal opportunities, diversity and so on, there are still some issues that hit you as they make you realise just how people can see things in different ways.”

Wellings found it just as enlightening to observe the reactions of other participants as it was to observe his own.

Wellings and Woodward both believe much of the power of the sessions comes from the fact that the participants can relate to what is being said. Woodward says he knows this from the feedback he gets when the workshops are over. “People say things such as: ‘I empathised with this character because…’. There are a lot of personal connections, and that makes it thought-provoking.”

This is particularly important for diversity training, because there is so much of it taking place now that it is easy for staff to regard it as a tick-box exercise, and feel that they have done it all before. A lot of it revolves around legislation and informing people of what is discriminatory behaviour and what is not. For this reason, it can be easy for people to disengage from the training – particularly if they feel they are being told how to behave.

That is not the case with this piece of training, according to Andrew Coley, personnel and development manager at Telford Police.

“Even the most sceptical and cynical people have come out of the training saying: ‘I will remember that. I have learned from it and it made me think about things I haven’t thought about before’,” he says. “I have been in this job since January, and before that I was diversity and equality manager at a large public organisation, and even I learned a lot from the training about how other people react.”

Wellings agrees that the training has been unusually well received by the partnership staff who took part. “I haven’t had a single person from any of the organisations say they thought it wasn’t worthwhile,” he says. “People have even been saying it is the best training they have ever had, and that they will remember the messages coming out of it for much longer than with other training.”

Diversity is such an all-encompassing issue that it can be hard to define what it means, and many people think of it purely in terms of racial diversity. A recent investigation into racial issues at the Metropolitan Police found that a lot of employees feel intimidated by the issue, fearing they will say the wrong thing or use the wrong language. Woodward believes that Forum Theatre provides an open, unthreatening environment where participants can voice their concerns, or simply ask questions.

The voluntary training has proved so popular that partnership staff are queuing up to take part in the next set of sessions. Some organisations already have a fully-subscribed waiting list for the next Forum Theatre, due to take place in autumn this year, and intend to put all their employees through the training scheme. A few other councils also came to watch the evening performances of the play, and were so impressed they intend to run similar events in their own organisations.

The partnership organisations are now waiting for the results of an evaluation into how successful the training has been. This is being carried out by an independent evaluator, who has been involved since day one of the project, and who took part in some of the initial cultural audits. Those who participated filled out assessment forms at the end of the morning after seeing the play, and again after the training sessions.

According to the council’s community affairs manager Pete Jackson, participants were asked their opinions of the training, what they got out of it, how it will impact on their behaviour in the workplace, and so on. There will also be questions on it in the annual staff attitude surveys.

Woodward says it is the first time he has run an event like this, and the first time that an independent evaluator has been used. It is also unusual for so many organisations to be doing it together.

“This sort of training – with such a diverse mix of organisations – is very rare,” says Woodward. The participating employers say the cross-organisation working has been hugely beneficial, and hope more borough-wide training initiatives will come out of it.

Another advantage of doing the scheme as a partnership is that it spreads the cost. But it will be over the coming months that the organisations hope to see the real benefits.

Learning points for HR

  • Do a cultural audit to establish what the needs are and how they can be met

  • Set targets

  • Communicate what you are doing to employees and why

  • Get senior management commitment. For this project, either the chief executive or the chief superintendent of West Mercia Police opened or closed each session with a speech

  • Set measurables and evaluate. Get feedback from participants

  • Disseminate the results and feedback so employees can see the follow-through

  • Follow it up with further training

How it works

Paradoxos Theatre Company carried out two weeks of research sessions among the partnership organisation staff and the local community it serves to find out what the diversity issues were. These were fed back into the two-hour play, Hidden Voices.

For the training sessions, a group of 100 people would watch the play in the morning and in the afternoon, they would split up into two groups. Those two groups would then split further into groups of 10-12, and three or four sections of the play were re-enacted, with each of the smaller groups having responsibility for a character. Woodward acted as the facilitator.

As the scenes are being re-enacted, employees can stop the scene and get their character to respond in a manner they believe is appropriate. Through this process, staff get to look at issues from different perspectives and try out different ways people react to situations.

Employee feedback

  • ‘I was very surprised by how the event was run. I found it very enjoyable… the way we were allowed to express our feelings through the actors’

  • ‘It touched emotions that many of us may not have even witnessed before’

  • ‘It challenged you to think outside of the right way to do things, which before now, would have been drilled into you’

  • ‘Loosening up my pre-conceived ideas to think laterally and openly’

  • ‘Felt very passionate, having experienced some of the issues personally, raised emotion’

  • ‘Enlightening, thought provoking’

  • ‘The impact of seeing and experiencing rather than just listening made it more real’

  • ‘Brilliant, I wanted more!’

  • ‘Brilliant way of getting sensitive issues explored’

  • ‘This was unique and relevant and surprised me’

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