EEOC delivers diversity class

Friday, November 13, 2009

Two leaders of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in Nashville led sensitivity training classes on Tuesday at Marshall County schools' central office where they began with an ice-breaking exercise that had school administrators tearing holes in paper, literally.

It was a simple task of keeping your eyes closed and then folding a piece of 8-1/2 by 11-inch typing paper in half, tearing the top right corner off and then repeating the folding and tearing several more times. The results were mostly different, but everyone had the same materials and instructions.

More than a couple dozen administrators laughed and saw the different results. However, they soon were learning about constitutionally protected classes of people. The classes are based on race, religion, place of origin and disability. Examples of discrimination against people in those protected groups were illustrated in a video that prompted discussion between the leaders and employees of the school system here.

The seminar approaches one of five requests submitted by the Marshall County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The branch's secretary delivered the five points as a list of school goals to the Board of Education on Monday night.

The staff-training goal calls for providing diversity and sensitivity training to half of all personnel by the end of the current school year. By the end of the 2010-11 school year, all school personnel should have received such training. District-wide training should continue annually.

Interim Schools Director Roy Dukes received an invoice for the training classes, he said. The cost: $750.

The training was provided by Sarah Smith, the area director for EEOC's Nashville Area Office, and Sylvia D. Hall, the enforcement supervisor for the same office.

A key message was that employers have a responsibility to provide a work place that's free of harassment. Not doing so can prove costly to the employer if a legal issue is raised, but it's also been found to be detrimental to productivity, staff morale and the well being of employees.

Examples include:

* An upper-level administrator telling the personnel director that a new employee, who's of a minority race could be best assigned to a job that requires interaction mostly with minorities.

* Management that turns a blind eye to employees' behavior that is unwelcome, such as catty remarks that contribute to a hostile work environment. A similar example is of a man repeatedly asking a woman for a date after she's made it clear she's not interested.

* Points made by school employees. One spoke of reassignment of an employee with no apparent reason other than race or sex when "you don't see anybody else being done that way."

* Sharing questionable jokes. If an employee starts the story with the words "I hope this doesn't offend you," then maybe the story shouldn't be told. That lesson prompted a woman in the class to comment to nobody in particular: "You may be a redneck if..."

While the seminar is on a serious subject that's to help the county agency protect itself from liability, the EEOC officials kept the approach light.

"We are not the humor police," Hall said. "We know that laughter has a positive effect."

Most of the cases that are brought to the EEOC office are about hostile work environments.

"We don't investigate fairness," Smith said. "We investigate discrimination."

Dukes attended much of the second of two seminars Tuesday. He said an employee may complain about a co-worker's behavior and not have it in writing. It's the supervisor's job to make a record.

Seminars on Tuesday were for supervisory personnel. The local branch of the NAACP wants the rest of the school system's employees to receive such training.