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Making a difference where people are 'different'

February 27, 2005|BY Wanda T. WILLIAMS

WASHINGTON COUNTY

Workplace diversity can mean different things to different people, said Keith Merkey, a diversity training specialist with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations.

"Diversity encompasses everything that makes us different from other persons, as well as all those things that make us similar," Merkey said.

In 2001, Merkey was hired by the commission to offer free workplace training to companies and organizations seeking a better understanding of what diversity means in the workplace.

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"Most people, unless they've gone off to college, may have never participated or been exposed to any type of diversity training," Merkey said.

During his workshops, Merkey conducts a question-and-answer session and interactive training offering real-life examples aimed at dismissing people's assumptions and stereotypes about other groups.

"Assumptions and stereotypes can be dangerous because when you base our behavior on inaccurate assumptions, you act upon something that may not be true," Merkey said.

Both can impede positive communication between people, he said.

"If you don't have a positive relationship, exchanges can be antagonistic or based on bad assumptions," he said. "People often jump into conversations with assumptions, and many of them are wrong."

Merkey travels around the state conducting diversity and other workplace training workshops to help resolve conflicts and to educate employees about avoiding potential conflicts. The workshops address a broad range of issues that affect the quality of internal and external workplace relationships, he said.

Good Humor-Breyers Ice Cream Inc. in Hagerstown requested Merkey's assistance when an employee made a derogatory racial remark at the company two years ago.

"He conducted 24-hour workshops for every shift," said Pete Madeo, human resource manager.

Merkey's workshops showed employees how to safely confront people who make comments that attack people based on their race, gender, age or sexual orientation. People who make offensive comments intentionally or unintentionally often are allowed to hide behind others who fail to speak out or challenge the person's behavior, Madeo said.

But what started out as a negative workplace experience ended up bringing his work force closer and increasing the company's level of understanding and appreciation for diversity, Madeo said.

The company formed a diversity team of employees trained to assist in identifying and resolving situations that may create an uncomfortable work environment.

"There's no way to control the prejudices that people bring to the workplace, but training offered us a structured process to address those prejudices and to embrace diversity," he said.

Potomac Case Management in Hagerstown also hired Merkey as part of the company's ongoing training to increase staff awareness and better serve the organization's 300 clients, said Kelley Macher, human resource director.

The agency provides several social intervention programs targeting mental health and behavioral problems in adults, families and youth. Although small, the organization's staff of 12 comes in contact with hundreds of clients daily, Macher said.

"We work with so many different individuals, we wanted to increase our awareness and understanding of culture and diversity," Macher said.

Merkey will return to Hagerstown on Tuesday to conduct a second diversity workshop with Potomac Case Management staff.

The Maryland Commission on Human Relations offers free diversity and other work issue programs to companies or organizations that request them.

Merkey may be reached at 410-767-8560 or 1-800-637-6247. You also may find information at the commission's Web site at www.mchr.state.md.us.

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