Managers in the public sector are often not well equipped to manage an increasingly diverse workforce. Many managers have not acquired the necessary confidence and skills to deal with situations which regularly arise in the modern workplace when these situations have a racial dimension or involve a gay or disabled member of staff.

In the past the response has been a short recruitment and selection course to ensure managers follow procedures designed to reduce the risk of unintended discrimination supplemented with an equal opportunity training course aimed at making managers more culturally sensitive and aware. However, this limited training does not equip managers to manage a diverse workforce, to deal with people who hold different values and views, who spend their time outside of work very differently. It doesn’t equip managers to resolve conflicts between members of staff which may or may not be to do with their race or sexuality. It doesn’t equip managers with the necessary people management skills.

Managers need to recognise that people bring into the world of work their experience of the wider world. If that experience is of prejudice and discrimination, of constant negative stereotypes in the media, then when they are overlooked for promotion, when they are unsuccessful in gaining a place on a course, when they are excluded from conversations or believe people are talking about them behind their back they will ask themselves, is it because I am black? If the response of management is dismissive, then these staff will take this as further evidence the organisation does not recognise prejudice and discrimination except in its most blatant forms. However, if management appears to willing to interpret any complaint by a black member of staff as evidence of racism then the staff group as a whole will lose confidence in management and lose faith in the fairness of the organisations procedures and policies. What’s true about race is also true about sexuality, gender, disability and faith.

Management is about managing people and the more diverse the people the more challenging the task.

If a manager lacks the skill and confidence to address an issue of poor attendance when faced with a member of staff who claims this is harassment; if a manager struggles to deal with a member of staff who responses to being taken to task for failing to meet agreed deadlines by claiming bullying - how much more difficult will they find it to deal with a member of staff who responds with allegations of racism, complains of harassment due to their sexuality or accuses the manager of insensitivity to their disability.

The individual may well perceive that their treatment is because they are black or gay or disabled but that does not make it so. The manager needs to have the skill and confidence to manage a diverse workforce, to be sensitive to issues of race, gender, disability, faith, age, and sexuality yet not to let poor practice go unchallenged, inappropriate behaviour go unchecked or tolerate lower standards of work.

To gain the skills and confidence to manage a diverse workforce, managers need to develop their people management skills. This can best be achieved through management development programmes that emphasise 360 degree feedback, coaching, mentoring and action learning sets. These support / learning forums can then be used to explore scenarios based on the type of situations managers find themselves in. Either with their mentor or in their learning set, managers can work through scenarios such as dealing with an attendance issue when the member of staff has a disability, dealing with a conflict between two members of the team when one is black, responding appropriately to a member of the team who claims they are being excluded and people are talking behind their back because of their sexuality or dealing with resentment arising out of a member of staff’s request for annual leave to fit in with religious festivals.

Blair McPherson was until recently a senior manager with a large local authority. He is author of An Elephant in the Room, an equality and diversity training manual, and People Management in a Harsh Financial Climate, both published by