DelDOT’s Diversity Coaching Backfires

Mike Chalmers, News Journal (Wilmington), May 1, 2009

The Delaware Department of Transportation designed its recent “Diversity Spotlight” newsletter to be an “in-your-face” effort to fight workplace discrimination.

But some DelDOT workers, minority-rights advocates and a diversity expert said the newsletter itself was offensive because it spelled out the slurs, insults and stereotypes that co-workers should never say to each other.

The newsletter, which Secretary Carolann Wicks distributed two weeks ago to most of the agency’s 2,600 workers, covered “workplace faux pas” involving homosexual, black, Asian, white, Hispanic and elderly workers.

The section titled “The N word,” for example, actually spells out the word, then says, “It is never, ever acceptable to use this word in any context.”

The newsletter also says it’s wrong to ask a black co-worker, “Should we order fried chicken or watermelon for you?”

The section on Hispanic co-workers lists several ethnic slurs and says workers should not ask, “Can you help me out with my landscaping?” It tells workers to avoid specific slang terms for homosexuals and not tell older co-workers, “You know Wal-Mart is hiring.”

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But Wicks said she had second thoughts after The News Journal began asking questions about the newsletter and hearing that it had offended some DelDOT workers.

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She e-mailed an apology to the agency’s workers and removed the newsletter from DelDOT’s intranet. Also, Wicks said she, as a woman in the male-dominated field of engineering, would act as a spokeswoman for the agency’s diversity efforts.

Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion at the nonprofit Society for Human Resources Management, said the newsletter’s approach was counterproductive, adding that he was troubled by its choice of words.

“It makes people think, ‘Well, I’m not even going to talk to my African-American co-worker because I don’t want to say the wrong thing,'” Peterson said.

Frustration sparked attempt

Several DelDOT workers attending a union training session Wednesday in New Castle said the newsletter’s message fell flat because of its offensive language.

Matt Gardner, a DelDOT mechanic in Bear, said he didn’t take the newsletter seriously at first.

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Minority-rights groups said the agency bungled an important topic.

“Unbelievable . . . that in 2009 people working in the DOT could be so clueless that they need specific DO-NOT-USE words/phases spelled out for them,” wrote Maria Matos, executive director of the Latin American Community Center, in an e-mail after reading the newsletter.

She said several LACC staffers told her they learned derogatory terms they hadn’t known.

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Charles Brittingham, president of the Delaware branch of the NAACP, said DelDOT deserves praise for addressing racism head-on. But some of the words–especially the reference to chicken and watermelon–go too far, he said.

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Wicks said the newsletter came out of a long period of frustration with incidents of DelDOT workers using slurs or stereotypes. Wicks started working at DelDOT as an engineer in 1982 and became secretary in 2006.

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