What's "sensitivity training?"

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June 27 2006 7:07 PM

Sensitivity Training 101

Where baseball managers learn how to behave.

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Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen will have to undergo league-mandated "sensitivity training," after calling a Chicago Sun-Times columnist a "fag" last week. Guillen told a reporter on Friday that he wasn't sure if he'd make it to the session, while legendary baseball loudmouth John Rocker described his own sensitivity training as a "farce." How does sensitivity training work?

You talk it out. If Guillen gets a standard corporate training session, he'll go to a conference center for a one-on-one meeting with a counselor. Over the course of several hours, Guillen will look at handouts and watch video presentations, and he'll be asked to think about his views on gays and other minority groups. He'll also get tips on how to control his behavior in tricky situations.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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The White Sox haven't decided exactly how the training should be carried out. A team spokesman says they'll go with a basic package offered by the independent contractor that handles some of the team's mental-health and management issues. Firms that offer this kind of support to large organizations call their product an "employee assistance program." Outside one of these programs, an experienced sensitivity trainer might charge $2,000 per session. (Guillen, who is Venezuelan, has said he'll need to "take English lessons" before attending the training courses. The team, though, has asked that the session be conducted in Spanish.)

One-on-one sessions tend to be quite different from the large-scale events that are sometimes offered to new employees. This year's rookies in the National Football League heard a sensitivity lecture from a gay former player on Monday. The speaker gave them some general advice and told them to be careful about what they say in the locker room.

An individual session may spend more time on legal issues and how the employee can keep himself and the organization out of trouble. Some counselors focus exclusively on this more practical training. They wouldn't want to hear about an employee's attitudes toward homosexuals, since in theory they might have to answer questions about those views in court. Instead, they encourage the employee to think hard about his views and then to keep them to himself. No written records are made of the session—again to safeguard against legal liability—and the counselor's final report describes the employee only in terms of his willingness to participate.

A mushier approach asks the employee to express his views out loud, in the hopes of addressing them head-on. A counselor and the employee discuss the source of his biases and how he might temper them.

These corporate sensitivity-training sessions come out of an industrial psychology research program that began in the 1940s. Kurt Lewin's Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT started using "T-group," or "training group," sessions to give managers and leaders the opportunity to workshop their own behavior. Robert Tannenbaum brought the idea to UCLA in the 1950s and 1960s, and he called his version of the T-groups "sensitivity training."

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Explainer thanks Deena Pargman of DB Pargman Consulting and Scott Reifert of the Chicago White Sox.