Diversity training is becoming ever more crucial in helping companies avoid
liability for discrimination as well as promoting the benefits for employees.
We look at how three public sector organisations have used role play to raise
awareness among staff of cultural and behavioural differences
The need to manage diversity in the workplace has long been a business
imperative. Recent events, however, have further highlighted the importance of
awareness and understanding of different behaviours and cultures.
Diversity training has evolved since the 1970s when US firms started
implementing formal classes to highlight the benefits of having a workforce
that was not solely made up of white men, but incorporated the talents of a
variety of people. The 90s marked a shift away from training focused on race
and gender to include the broader remit of age, ethnic background, religion and
Training is becoming increasingly important in helping employers to defend
discrimination and harassment claims. They have to show they have taken all
reasonably practicable steps to prevent the discrimination complained about –
and the courts have made it clear that an equal opportunities policy is not
But diversity training should not just be about complying with legislation
on discrimination at work. It should also promote the benefits that diversity
Having a diverse workforce helps organisations be more creative and to
provide a service that better reflects their customer base.
The problem is not so much creating policies and procedures that reflect
diversity. The real challenge is to design and deliver a diversity training
programme that will not only make employees aware of bias and stereotyping in
the workplace but will also put across the beneficial messages and bring the
issues to life.
Barking College, the Civil Service College and HM Treasury are three
organisations which have used drama-based training to achieve these aims.
Like other further education establishments, Barking College is trying to
attract more students by being "inclusive" – offering courses
appropriate for all members of the local community and ensuring all students
can succeed. Having determined an equal opportunities and diversity strategy,
the college wanted to develop a code of practice showing how the words and
values could be realised.
Lucy Moy-Thomas, the College staff development and training manager, says,
"The impact of diversity and the benefits it can bring are difficult
messages to get across in Dagenham. We decided to use a drama-based learning
approach that would interest and entertain people and at the same time be
sensitive to the issues."
The college approached Steps, a drama-based learning company which had
already provided performance management training sessions and other bespoke
training, and asked it to highlight some of the issues of diversity in a
half-day training session for all 385 members of staff.
Called Equal Opportunities and Diversity Training, the session ran 18 times between
January and June 2000.
At each session, professional role players acted out short scenarios which
touched on a range of issues such as race, sexism and bullying.
Scenarios included a male staff member being harassed by suggestive remarks
from woman and finding it offensive; an Asian member of staff being advised by
his line manager not to apply for an internal vacancy; a female student seeking
feedback from a lecturer after receiving a mediocre mark, and two tutors
discussing how to act when homophobic jokes and remarks are made in the
presence of a gay male student.
The Steps approach is to role play the scenario, take it to a certain point
and then freeze-frame it, so one of the role players can turn to the group of
participants and ask, "I’m not happy with what is happening, what do you
think I should do?" When a suggestion is made the role players can put it
into practice and then explore it to its conclusion, thus offering participants
the chance to test the potential of ideas in a completely safe setting.
"Diversity has a lot of grey areas, so we deliberately chose scenarios
that were ambiguous, in order to provoke comment and discussion," said
Lucy Moy-Thomas. "Almost immediately participants were shouting out
suggestions and laughing as well."
Participants were split into groups to discuss the key points from the
session and these were compiled to form the basis of the college’s code of
Moy-Thomas says that providing training in this way for all staff has made a
difference at the college.
"More needs to be done, but we feel the atmosphere has already changed
following these sessions.
"This approach leaps across boundaries and we found it was a very
powerful way of bringing home the messages."
Civil Service College
The Government has been pressing all departments and agencies to address
diversity as part of its Modernising Government programme. One of the key
objectives is to improve the diversity of the Civil Service in order to better
reflect the population as a whole.
Jane Nokes, The Civil Service College’s programme director of managing
diversity, says, "Diversity is a huge issue for any organisation that
wants to manage staff effectively and provide a good service to its customers.
Managers need to have confidence in dealing with diversity issues and practice
challenging unacceptable behaviour."
Participants enjoy the flexibility of the role play approach, Nokes says.
"All of the ideas come from the participants. I’m firmly of the view that
this approach makes for better learning."
Nokes says the end results have been very satisfying, both for her and for
the participants. "The main theme of the course is about the value of
working collaboratively, resolving conflicts and difficult situations and using
people’s differences creatively," she says. "It is appropriate,
therefore, that we should draw upon the experience present in the group to
explore the subject."
HM Treasury has also used drama to support diversity training, as part of an
internal change programme.
Philippa Morgan, head of training and development at HM Treasury, says,
"Traditionally the Treasury has been a white, male, middle-class
organisation and we wanted the department to be more representative of our
customer base of tax payers. We opted to use drama in our diversity training
because it is a very useful way of challenging people’s behaviour and
highlighting conduct that can be offensive."
The department used a range of role play scenarios in a one-day training
programme for all members of staff. The aim was to raise awareness of all
aspects of diversity, including the legal perspectives and the business
benefits, and to challenge perceptions and assumptions.
Called Diversity Awareness, the programme was delivered to around 1,000
people, with 70 to 80 attending each time, between February and September 2001.
The role plays lasted 90 minutes and were designed to provide a practical
context in which the learning points could be related to live issues from the
"The role plays were very true to life and they encouraged
participation," says Morgan. "The programme helped people to take on
board different ideas and to become more accepting of others from different
She adds that the department has benefited by applying best practice in the
area of diversity. "We want to recruit, train, develop and promote people
in an equitable way that acknowledges and harnesses skills and abilities,"
she says. "This benefits both individuals and the department. If we don’t
provide an environment where people feel included, they’re not going to come and
they’re not going to stay."