L&D: Protectors of the Realm?

Ever seen the film American History X? One of Edward Norton’s finest films for his portrayal of a white supremacist who learned just how wrong his actions and thinking was, and what the consequences of this were for his family.

A while back, I was asked to deliver some Diversity and Dignity at Work training to a company who specialised in Fire Safety and First Aid training. It came about because one of their group was delivering a 4 day First Aid course, and through the course made non-stop sexual innuendos wherever he could about the human body. The course did have a lady delegate, but she wasn’t the one who raised the concern. It was a delegate who felt uncomfortable the trainer did this at all.

Organisational culture is a beast. It’s the result of a range of events, activities, beliefs, actions, processes, procedures, management, leadership, networks and more. And it’s one of the things a lot of employees can identify with easily on day one of work. But what happens when the organisational culture isn’t a good one? What do you do to combat this? Ford Motor Co. were probably the first high profile company during the 1990s to face such issues. There was open racism, discrimination and bad practise rife within their walls. It took a brave few, and the work of good journalists to bring this to light. At the time, the equivalent of the Commission for Racial Equality mandated that Ford change their business practise and to this day they have to report on the diversity practises they employ.

My concern, though, is in this day and age, when you might consider that institutional racism and discrimination are no longer open concerns, how confident can we be that this is the case? And what’s one of the few places you can see how evident this is?

The training room is a fascinating environment. L&Ders will be mindful of creating strong learning environments, effective learning materials, inclusive exercises, and an overall positive intervention. The delegates will have expectations, apprehensions, and issues they either bring with them, or want addressed in that environment. But what of the unspoken truths evident, and the audacity of a few individuals to make comments about the diversity of the delegates? I heard recently about a team away day for a group of sales people. One team were more ethnically diverse than the rest. A joke was passed around that it looked like an advert for the United Colours of Benetton. What a disgrace.

So when you consider who is entering that environment, and you see the make up of the group, what questions should be raised? Who should they get raised to? I don’t think it’s even a question of if it should be raised. Let’s not consider for a moment that training happens across the world, and this brings with it a separate set of issues. But in the UK, and I could support this with data but I have not searched for this, most training environments will consist of white males. The next ‘majority’ will be white females. Beyond this, the diversity of a group will and does split in small ways. Does the L&Der do enough to not favour one group over the other?

Who notices that? And what’s being done to address it? As I say, the training environment is one of the few in your face places that you can identify almost immediately what the diversity of the workforce actually is. And then linked with that are a host of assumptions – who is eligible for training, who is eligible for progression, who is eligible for investment.

Lastly, what happens, as in the initial paragraph when you have a trainer/L&Der who is discriminating, or being prejudiced, or being racist, but they’re blind to it? Going through training will help in one respect. It won’t take care of the issue though. Sacking them seems an obvious choice, but that doesn’t help them, and sends the wrong message to the company. Feedback and coaching may also seem like options, which would seem to be the better option.

The above is an observation on a certain state of play which I perceive to be an ongoing issue which L&D in particular can influence. Businesses will present arguments for and against diversity which is so bizarre a state I don’t even know where to begin with that. L&D are protectors of the realm. We promote our culture, and the way we do things around here. This can also mean we are unwittingly blind.


Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

5 thoughts on “L&D: Protectors of the Realm?”

  1. In the broader sense, a similar discussion is being had in coaching circles. Fundamentally it comes down to who is the client and who do you serve.

    The criticism levelled at external coaching in organisations is that the coach does not provide the organisational insight, thematics or consultancy that they witness or hear about during the coaching sessions. That the coach hides behind client confidentiality.

    The challenge for coaches is to step up to the challenge and find ways to share meaningful insights without undermining either the trust or confidentiality of the coaching relationship. In this way both the organisational and individual client is served.

    Beyond this, there’s the question of when & how does the coach challenge the client when it becomes apparent that the individual exhibits values inconsistent with the organisations values.

    Anyone who can do this meaningfully & respectfully creates value to the organisation regardless of their role. So the challenge for everyone is if you can do it, then what’s stopping you? If you can’t do it then are you complicit?

    1. This is a fascinating piece of the pie which is certainly intriguing. Is there something here about contractual arrangements before the outset of coaching to clarify the above? And what of the psychological contract? Can a person being coached by an external, truly allow themselves to go through the process if they know the company will ultimately hear about the outcome and process (if that is what has been agreed)?

      1. Yes Sukh, contracting (in coaching terms) underpins this both for the individual and the organisational client. It’s the cornerstone of how you will operate and manage the relationship.

        It’s important that I clarify that I believe the individual should be in agreement with what is to be shared because A) why wouldn’t you involve them, & B) if you don’t make this transparent you put the relationship in peril.

        This whole area of engagement is another dimension to the skill a coach needs in an organisational setting. It’s about recognising that you already have more than 1 client in the relationship and you need to serve both their needs, with care and transparency. Perhaps more importantly the value you help create is in the overall change, not just in the conversation.

        I wonder what L&D can take from this?

  2. Interesting post Sukh and having given it some thought I am still in two minds as to my response.

    Diversity is an issue to be sure but I don’t think it’s one that will be solved by L&D or even the broader HR function. My belief is that only once the leadership of an organisation see the reason or if you like business case for diversity will it change. Likewise I believe there are organisations with insitutionalised prejudiced but what L&D are able to achieve in these organisations represents to my mind a drop in the ocean.

    I remember being in a dinner table debate as to whether HR was there to protect the interests of the employees or the organisation or both. The difficultly is that he who pays the piper gets to call the tune and individuals will always be mindful of hierarchy and the need to assuage their masters.

    I love the idea of being a defender of the realm (can we get capes?) but I think the analogy that works better for me is in an organisation where everyone ‘is singing from the same hymn sheet’ helping people one by one if neccessary to start singing a new tune.

    1. I was conscious while writing this that I was setting up L&D to be the saviour of the realm as well as its protector. It was more my intention to raise that through L&D we can observe organisational issues which may be prevalent that we are blind to.

      I have also found that businesses will make the wrong decision of getting rid of people for challenging the practices of the company, and then in their replacement seek to hire those who can make the desired difference even though they could have done this previously.

      Singing from the same hymn sheet is something I would advocate too, and is in principle what the (wider) HR function aims to achieve. Ultimately, there’s always room to bend the rules, and we (collectively) would do well to remain mindful of this.

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