Don't Fire the Trent Lott in Your Organization

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The diversity expert, Billy Vaughn, PhD, argues for providing good training instead of firing employees for discriminatory behavior. He says that effective training reduces turnover costs, offers employees opportunities to become role models, and promotes a more productive organization.

The San Francisco 49ers football team’s public relations director Kirk Reynolds recently resigned from his coveted job. The news media had just reported the tasteless racial and sexist humor presented in a sexual harassment training video Reynolds developed for the players. The media have covered similar stories of high profile individuals losing their jobs for intentional and unintentional insulting behaviors. Perhaps the most outstanding is the coverage of Trent Lott, the past Senate Republication Leader.

People with authority over others in organizations are the culprits of a considerable amount of the everyday indignities women, people with different abilities, and people of color under them endure. Managers, supervisors, and people who are well liked by them, tend to be the most difficult to challenge when they are perpetrators of discrimination.

A human resource officer once confided in me that women employees were being harassed by one of the two company owners. Even the other partner felt hopeless in doing anything about it. They solicited to provide the entire organization with sexual harassment training in the hope that he would be compelled to attend even though they understood that the likelihood was slim.

Human resource officers seem to seriously seek a solution only when a lawsuit or media attention creates a sense of emergency. In the meantime productivity suffers due to employees feeling unsupported and fearful. The instinctive solution in an emergency is fire the culprit, if possible. When that is not an option, they provide diversity training for managers, the entire organization, or both.

A more cost-effective and productive solution exists in most of these situations. Avoid firing your Trent Lott or throwing large-scale diversity training at the problem. Consider providing the individual with cultural competence coaching as an alternative initial strategy. An excellent coach is non-judgmental and solution-focused to the benefit of everyone in the organization. The coach will help the individual understand the consequences of her or his actions on the target, the organization, any bystanders, and herself or himself. The insight the individual gains provides a foundation for the expert to help the person learn more constructive behaviors needed to avoid future infractions.

Qualcomm, Inc. started using cultural competence coaching years ago. They offer a manager eight hours of individual coaching. The result is savings in firing and rehiring, as well as increased legal protection. More importantly, coaching fosters a culture of cultural competence among managers. Managers who show improvement in cultural competence serve as a model for others. Such forward thinking has landed Qualcomm, Inc. several national awards.

Firing your Trent Lott can be costly and the organization loses an opportunity to create a more inclusive culture.

Billy Vaughn is Chief Learning Officer and Managing Partner for Diversity Training University International (, which has offices in San Diego, Washington DC, and San Francisco. You can send comments via email.

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