Princeton Weekly Bulletin   March 31, 2008, Vol. 97, No. 21   prev   next   current

Course builds leadership skills for diverse work force

by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ — In a training room on the top floor of New South, 13 Princeton staff members put aside the daily tasks associated with their positions in offices and departments all over campus to talk about a subject that is essential to understanding the workplace: diversity.

“In an environment where people are diverse, we get adaptability and flexibility,” explained Sharon Fries-Britt, the facilitator for the course presented by the Office of Human Resources. “And talented people tend to be drawn to diverse workplaces.”

photo of class

In a course for staff members called “Leveraging Diversity,” facilitator Sharon Fries-Britt (left, standing) explained that diversity in the workplace attracts talented employees and helps an institution to be more flexible and adaptable. The course is part of the management development certificate program offered by the Office of Human Resources. (photo: Denise Applewhite)

For the next few hours, Fries-Britt, who is an associate professor in the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland, described the changes that globalization and the aging of the U.S. work force will bring in the next decade. She outlined some of the ways that perceptions and historical stereotypes can engender racial tension, and she offered exercises for the class participants to help them devise solutions for real-world situations.

“The class is designed to address practical and theoretical aspects of leading in a diverse and complex work environment,” said Maureen Imbrenda, the manager of learning and development in human resources. Focused specifically on issues and strategies related to working in higher education, it is the second part of a two-course program called “Leveraging Diversity” that is offered to staff members as part of the management development certificate program run by human resources. Staff members do not have to be enrolled in the management certificate program to take the courses, but they must take the first course before enrolling in the second.

“Diversity is such an important asset for the campus,” said Patti Wieser, a participant in the course who works as an information officer at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. “It brings in different approaches to solving problems and different ways of doing things.”

Addressing diversity in the workplace, Fries-Britt told the class, not only refers to an awareness of the differences among people of different races and ethnicities. Differences in age also can have a strong impact on how people relate to each other in the workplace.

“What each generation values and how it operates in the workplace can vary considerably,” Fries-Britt said. While Baby Boomers — born between 1943 and 1960 — tend to value rewards and recognition, members of Generation X — born between 1960 and 1980 — are more likely to want informality and fun in the workplace, she said. “Generation Xers need autonomy,” Fries-Britt pointed out. “They like flexibility.”

Tensions between different generations may be exacerbated by the fact that employees who are over 65 are staying in the work force longer than they used to, Fries-Britt pointed out. “What are the implications of these trends, and how are you seeing examples of these?” she asked the class.

The conversation sparked one participant to reflect on the reason that her department had been having a difficult time filling entry-level positions: “I never thought about it before, but it may be the decline in the numbers of younger people in the work force,” she said.

For Grace Shackney, director of artistic administration at the McCarter Theatre, taking the two courses on diversity meant “I’ve come to realize diversity is about more than race and gender,” she said. She found the courses so beneficial that “I want all our managers to register for this,” she said.

Fries-Britt, an expert in race, equity and diversity, designed the courses with Princeton’s culture and management structure in mind. Attending a class where diversity is studied improves awareness of the assumptions and stereotypes that we sometimes fall back on, Fries-Britt said. “Eighty-five percent of what we make meaning out of is (nonverbal),” she said. “We’re filters — we’re making judgments every day. The class creates an opportunity for dialogue.”

The class — made up of staff members from the Department of Dining Services, the Office of Information Technology, the Department of Chemistry and several other areas of campus — broke into small groups to discuss issues surrounding diversity that have come up in their workplaces. They also debated how they would handle a hypothetical scenario — a talented employee who is frequently absent without explanation — by discussing the cultural differences the boss and the employee may be confronting and the assumptions both parties are making.

“The course is a great reflection on the concepts of culture, power, politics and resources that are interrelated in the work environment,” said Atanas Tepavitcharov, a senior bibliographic specialist at Firestone Library. “It elaborates on the challenge that each company faces and how it affects the work environment.”

Janna Dodrill, an office support staff member in the economics department, called the class “an eye-opener. I have a psychology background, so I love learning about how people relate.”

“The class helped put in perspective things people say, where they’re coming from,” said Jaysen LeSage, a systems coordinator in career services.

The “Leveraging Diversity” courses will be offered again April 11. For more information on the courses and the management certificate, visit

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