Crucial Conversations in Human Resource Management: From Affirmative Action to Cultural Competency

This workshop, which took place on Friday, March 20, 2009 at 9:00-10, was led by Dr. Cryshanna Jackson of Youngstown State University, Dr. RaJade Berry-James of The University of Akron and Dr. Brown.

Providing Social Equity in the Workplace: The Case for Affirmative Action

Dr. Jackson initiated the discussion by providing a brief historical timeline of racial and gender discrimination in the United States, the civil rights movement and various legislations which emerged as a consequence, specifically Executive order 11246, also known as affirmative action. Jackson (2009) notes that while the purposes of affirmative action were to (1) right the blatant wrongs (discrimination) against women and minorities, (2) increase the presence of minorities and women in the workplace and higher education and (3) promote the importance of gender and racial considerations, it posed a number of problems, such as implementation of effective affirmative action plans, reverse discrimination and the inability to appropriately address social equity. Jackson maintains that the idea of social equity is derived from the Bill of Rights, which advances equal treatment, (i.e., equitable access and delivery of government services) for all men and women.

Additionally, Jackson argues that although public policies have been designed to aid in eliminating social inequities, a new phenomenon has occurred, which she referred to as the ‘new discrimination.’ New discrimination deals with the desire for groups or individuals to assimilate or conform to societal norms, for example, individuals told to change their accents or women taking on masculine personas.

Because of the new discrimination, Jackson suggests that a discussion concerning cultural competency is essential to promoting social equity, which requires individuals to acquire the knowledge, skills and abilities to understand, accept and work with individuals of diverse backgrounds (Berry-James, 2008). Furthermore, cultural competency is particularly important in public administration, where diverse populations are being serviced. Therefore, Jackson argues that it is equally important for public administrators to become more proactive with regards to cultural competence, and specifically, avoiding stereotypes and unbiased hiring practices in the work environment.

Crucial Conversations in the Public Sector

Dr. Berry-James adds that increasing competencies (KSAs) in the public sector should include enhanced attitudes and awareness toward changing demographics and diversity, as the minorities will become the ‘new minority-majority.’ Berry-James (2009) also notes that various organizations and professional associations have begun to adopt “Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) Standards,” which is comprised of the following:

• Culturally Competent Care;
• Language Access Services; and
• Organizational Supports.

Jackson suggests that public administrators should receive ongoing diversity trainings (culturally competent care). In addition, she discusses English-only laws and argues that citizens should receive services in languages that they speak (language access services). And finally, the public sector should develop strategic plans for cultural competencies by conducting needs assessments, considering conflict resolution for people of differing cultures, developing reporting mechanisms for languages spoken at home and disseminating diversity information to the public.

Advancing Cultural Competence and Street Level Bureaucrats (SLBs)

According to Lipsky (1988), the street level bureaucrat (SLB) has been defined as a teacher, police officer, social worker or any frontline worker, having direct interaction with the public. Dr. Brown discusses the role that advancing cultural competencies plays with SLBs in reducing disparities in delivering government services.

Brown maintains that a natural tension exists with respect to the delivery of services (ideal, equitable delivery of services vs. realities, limited resources). And while SLBs may engage in discrimination subconsciously, Brown argues that the expectation, at best, is the SLB will treat everyone the same. Consequently, SLBs can cause and produce positive outcomes through ‘transformational leadership’ by not only receiving cultural competency trainings, but also beginning to identify inherent biases.

Moving Forward with Cultural Competency

Perhaps a critical question to be explored is whether cultural competency is (1) necessary, (2) attainable and (3) measurable?

It is my position that based on the discussion and participants’ comments, it was agreed that cultural competency is necessary, as the ‘face of America’ is ever-changing. Yet, I agree with Dr. Berry-James’ assertions that, in addition to cultural competency, awareness and attitudes are of equal significance. Raising awareness concerning differing cultures and languages, examining disparities as well as dispelling stereotypes will aid in the development of strategic plans to more appropriately meet the needs of the population being serviced.

One might argue that cultural competency is attainable, but it is up to the managers to clearly define such competencies. For instance, in my organization, it is not clearly stated that employees are receiving diversity/cultural competency trainings. They mask it by referring to the training as a ‘Critical Staff Meeting’ and discuss code of ethics, rules and procedures, which includes the organization’s harassment policy. Ultimately, it is an extremely broad and vague diversity or culture sensitivity training.

At this point, it may be difficult to measure cultural competency if employers are having difficulty dealing with the subject matter due to varying perspectives. For example, what does one mean when talking about culture or diversity? How can ideals, such as social equity, culture awareness or equality be measured? One might then argue that it is difficult to measure cultural competence, if it has not been agreed upon and clearly defined.

This workshop provided me with fascinating perspectives on cultural competence. It also informed me that there are strides that should be made in addressing this subject matter from a practitioner and academic standpoint. This discussion was extremely insightful, as I will begin to consider the ideas shared at this conference to strive toward the betterment of fair and equitable treatment for all.

~ Marian Bobian
Chair, Professional and Social Networking Committee
MPA Student Association
John Jay College of Criminal Justice

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