Diversity training is raising issues along with consciousness RUNNING THE GANTLET

October 09, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

Tiny, pale and barely visible over the table she's sitting at in her Ednor Gardens rowhouse is the latest high priestess of political correctness -- the woman who dared to make men feel like the victims of sexual harassment.

With sleepy-lidded eyes behind big glasses and a receding, therapist-like demeanor, Louise Eberhardt seems the unlikely cause of a headlines-grabbing sexual harassment lawsuit filed last month by a man.

In the lawsuit, Douglas Hartman, an Illinois air traffic controller, says he was forced to walk through a Tailhook-style gantlet during a workshop designed by Ms. Eberhardt to combat sexual harassment. Mr. Hartman says he became a victim himself when he was groped by his female co-workers, who then rated his sexual attributes.

"The gantlet," Ms. Eberhardt says with a sigh about the exercise that, by her estimate, took less than one minute of a three-day workshop that her Baltimore company, Hart Performance Group, developed for Federal Aviation Administration employees.

"It had nothing to do with Tailhook," she says, referring to the infamous 1991 convention of Navy and Marine aviators at which women were manhandled by a gantlet of their drunken colleagues.

"It came out of the [air traffic controllers'] workplace itself," Ms. Eberhardt says. "They work in this very dark place, they sit in these long rows, and whenever a woman walks down the aisle, men will turn around and make comments or pull up their dresses."

After repeated complaints from female and minority air traffic controllers in the Chicago area, the FAA hired Ms. Eberhardt in 1989 to design workshops for the controllers, largely white males, to sensitize them to the changing make-up of their workplace.

Mr. Hartman, a 43-year-old air traffic controller from Aurora, Ill., was one of 8,000 FAA employees who went through diversity training. He attended a workshop in June 1992 that was designed by Ms. Eberhardt and conducted by one of her employees.

Ms. Eberhardt says she included the Tailhook-style gantlet in all her FAA workshops to jar male participants into understanding what women often face in the workplace. Mr. Hartman was more than jarred. He was outraged.

After complaining to his supervisors to no avail, he filed a $300,000 lawsuit last month against the Department of Transportation.

"If you want people to respect each other, you have to treat them with respect. If you want to stop abusive behavior, you can't abuse people," Mr. Hartman says. "I don't treat people that way, and so I raised objections to being treated that way. I was accused of being in denial, and that I was a racist and a sexist. They presumed who I was because I fell into a certain classification . . . white male. I resent that."

His lawsuit has reignited a long-running debate over the use and effectiveness of diversity training, an increasingly common phenomenon in today's workplace.

On one side are those who say diversity training needs to be intensely personal and dramatic to sensitize employees to the experiences of colleagues who may come from radically different backgrounds than their own. On the other side are those who say the training, however well-intended, often turns into an exercise in political correctness, in which white males are the bad guys and every one else is a victim.

For Ms. Eberhardt, 50, the lawsuit has become a gantlet of sorts for her and her company.

Her consulting work for the FAA, which says it has paid her $1.18 million since 1992, has been put on hold. The federal Inspector General, which had begun investigating FAA training 2 1/2 years ago over complaints about another program, has expanded the probe recently to include the allegations against Ms. Eberhardt's seminars.

And she worries that the controversy could hurt her ability to attract new clients, though her firm is not being sued.

All the attention is at odds with what Ms. Eberhardt calls her "laid-back" style.

"People expect to see this abrasive person," says Ms. Eberhardt, who has been doing various forms of business consulting and group training for about 20 years.

Instead they find a woman who personifies the liberal, personal-growth, therapeutic culture that has taken root to such an extent that even the president of the United States attends workshops where he talks about growing up as a fat boy and unabashedly says things like, "I feel your pain."

Ms. Eberhardt speaks carefully and with pervasive sensitivity: She prefers the term "people of color," for example, to "minorities," because, after all, they aren't minorities if you look at the world at large. And, even as she disputes Mr. Hartman's account of the seminar, she makes clear that even his complaint should be listened to.

"I have a lot of empathy for white men today," she says. "I think it's hard for them to adapt to all the changes in the workplace today."

A principled life

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