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Benefits of employee diversity rank high on Congress agenda

Cora Jackson Fossett
Director, Public Affairs Office, Department of Public Works
City of Los Angeles, California
Chair, APWA Diversity Committee

Diversity ranks high on the American Public Works Association's agenda and never was it more apparent than at this year's annual conference in Atlanta. Many dynamic sessions, ranging from effective listening skills to team building, which focused on the benefits of employee diversity in the workplace, were held during the four-day event.

APWA believes that "diversity awareness is essential for the continued growth and vitality of an organization, both as a workforce and as a membership organization." In fact, in 1995 APWA established a Diversity Committee that promotes the belief that all should be made to feel included as part of the whole. APWA's diversity program encompasses many issues, from race, age and creed to lifestyle, weight and height, to social status and level of position within an organization.

APWA's Diversity Committee hosted a well-attended luncheon during the conference that featured Nancy Lewis, a popular resource speaker, consultant and trainer who specializes in diversity issues. Also, Ms. Lewis presented an engaging session entitled "Effective Listening Skills" and included such subjects as the difference between listening versus hearing. Those who attended learned that listening is a learned skill; it is an active, not a passive, process.

She also discussed the internal and external barriers faced when listening to others, as well as five basic reasons why most people don't listen effectively. One of the main reasons, she said, is because listening is hard work and it is competition.

Lewis noted that there is a power of non-verbal communication in the listening process that includes the words being used, the tone of voice, and bodily gestures.

She concluded by outlining strategies for effective listening. These strategies include: developing the attitude of wanting to listen; focusing on the individual; being approachable; removing potential barriers; frequently summarizing and paraphrasing what has been said; and asking questions.

Another popular session was "Team Building to Diversity" led by H. Reed Fowler, Jr., Director of Public Works, and Linda Pearce, safety and training coordinator, Department of Public Works, City of Newport News, Virginia.

In his discussion, Fowler stressed that, "To provide quality services, often under stressful conditions, public works employees must set aside their differences and depend on each other. For this reason, achieving a good working relationship among a diverse workforce is critical."

During the workshop, attendees learned how team building in the Newport News Department of Public Works led to diversity and how employees responded to diversity training. Those attending the workshop also learned how to customize a diversity training program for their respective organizations.

As background, Pearce reported that the City of Newport News Public Works Department follows the practice of assuring that all employees are taught to understand that various forms of harassment related to age, race or sex are not tolerated. Each employee must also sign an acknowledgement to confirm that he or she understands this directive.

"These actions provide basic information on what to do and what not to do," she said. "We also found that another important step to enhance diversity appreciation is to team build.

"When there is a problem to be solved, things work best when everyone sets aside differences and works together as a team to reach a common goal," she added.

One of the most important steps taken in this effort by Newport News was to seek APWA accreditation. To achieve accreditation, APWA's requirements include a self-assessment process.

Newport News' self-assessment process included the need to improve communication and teamwork among employees at every level by encouraging them to participate in problem-solving issues, thereby becoming stakeholders in the overall success of the department.

Newport News achieved its success by providing training to help team members understand and value their differences.

Employees were taught to understand that diversity would strengthen the organization as a whole and this training would reinforce their desire to work together to achieve departmental common goals.

Although using professional facilitators, the diversity training program was customized to meet the needs of the department and is an ongoing process. A cross-section of participants assisted the program design team.

"An overwhelming majority of students rated the program as very helpful or extremely helpful," Pearce said. One student's comment, perhaps, said it all: "This class was great for making you take the time to step back and look at different topics, not only from your point of view, but from how other people might look at them."

Another program participant responded that "the class...(brought)...out some bias within myself." And, oh yes, the Newport News Public Works Department achieved APWA accreditation in 2003.

Cora Jackson Fossett can be reached at (213) 978-0319 or at cjackson@bpw.lacity.org.