Four Principles in Educating For Diversity-Related Change

How do public sector employees successfully seek LGBT-friendly changes in their workplaces?  I conducted a case study of a 20-year effort to attain domestic partner benefits in one large state university system.  The public sector has always lagged behind large private sector employers in offering employee benefits and other policies that are equitable for LGBT people. Part of that study looked at how employees educated the public, state officials, other employees, administrators, and board members to support the changes.

The four most relevant findings for others seeking such changes in public sector organizations are:

1. Importance of Self-Sensoring.  This principle is crucial when dealing with the public and broader constituencies.  In the study I conducted, two other high-profile groups were seeking social justice related changes within the university system and used more radical techniques and approaches.  Those movements alienated decision makers due to heated rhetoric.  At times, those more radical approaches provided motivation for those seeking domestic partner benefits to “step up” their pressure.  This motivation was helpful in keeping things moving.  However, at the same time, the domestic partner benefits group was able to temper their rhetoric and approach in a way that resulted in them being a “contrasting group”…viewed as professional and collaborative by university leadership.  The leadership expressed a lot of comfort in dealing with this group, compared with the groups perceived as more radical.  This was crucial to helping the group have a  good relationship with the leadership.

2. Combine Public Education and Behind-the-Scenes Approaches.  When a public sector organization is considering changes that could be perceived negatively by the larger public, behind-the-scenes approaches alone aren’t always enough.  In this study, leaders continued to be nervous about public reaction to these changes.  Their public presence and story-telling about the hardships associated with not having their partners’ insured was crucial in swaying decision makers.  Behind-the-scenes collaboration was essential, but respectful, public dialogue was essential in insuring that the administration didn’t let this issue “fall off their radars.”

3.  Coalitions Are Sometimes Helpful. In this case, the group had mixed success in coalition efforts in working with a new union for academic employees and in collaborating with women’s groups.  The evidence in this study suggested that those coalitions weren’t always fruitful, but the evidence suggested that they did serve the best interests of all parties in way or another.  In the end, these coalitions helped to move the domestic partner benefit issue forward.

4. Testimonials Are Crucial.  Individuals seeking these changes repeatedly told stories publicly about what these changes would mean for them and their families.  These stories had the largest consistent direct impact on decision makers.  The key to the success of the stories was tying an emotional component with a call to action on the part of the listeners.

The full-length version of this part of the study was published by the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, a journal of the American Psychological Association.  The PDF is available by clicking here.

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