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Diversity training is raising issues along with consciousness RUNNING THE GANTLET

Tiny, pale and barely visible over the table she's sitting at in her Ednor Gardens rowhouse is the latest high priestess of political correctness -- the woman who dared to make men feel like the victims of sexual harassment.

With sleepy-lidded eyes behind big glasses and a receding, therapist-like demeanor, Louise Eberhardt seems the unlikely cause of a headlines-grabbing sexual harassment lawsuit filed last month by a man.

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In the lawsuit, Douglas Hartman, an Illinois air traffic controller, says he was forced to walk through a Tailhook-style gantlet during a workshop designed by Ms. Eberhardt to combat sexual harassment. Mr. Hartman says he became a victim himself when he was groped by his female co-workers, who then rated his sexual attributes.

"The gantlet," Ms. Eberhardt says with a sigh about the exercise that, by her estimate, took less than one minute of a three-day workshop that her Baltimore company, Hart Performance Group, developed for Federal Aviation Administration employees.

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"It had nothing to do with Tailhook," she says, referring to the infamous 1991 convention of Navy and Marine aviators at which women were manhandled by a gantlet of their drunken colleagues.

"It came out of the [air traffic controllers'] workplace itself," Ms. Eberhardt says. "They work in this very dark place, they sit in these long rows, and whenever a woman walks down the aisle, men will turn around and make comments or pull up their dresses."

After repeated complaints from female and minority air traffic controllers in the Chicago area, the FAA hired Ms. Eberhardt in 1989 to design workshops for the controllers, largely white males, to sensitize them to the changing make-up of their workplace.

Mr. Hartman, a 43-year-old air traffic controller from Aurora, Ill., was one of 8,000 FAA employees who went through diversity training. He attended a workshop in June 1992 that was designed by Ms. Eberhardt and conducted by one of her employees.

Ms. Eberhardt says she included the Tailhook-style gantlet in all her FAA workshops to jar male participants into understanding what women often face in the workplace. Mr. Hartman was more than jarred. He was outraged.

After complaining to his supervisors to no avail, he filed a $300,000 lawsuit last month against the Department of Transportation.

"If you want people to respect each other, you have to treat them with respect. If you want to stop abusive behavior, you can't abuse people," Mr. Hartman says. "I don't treat people that way, and so I raised objections to being treated that way. I was accused of being in denial, and that I was a racist and a sexist. They presumed who I was because I fell into a certain classification . . . white male. I resent that."

His lawsuit has reignited a long-running debate over the use and effectiveness of diversity training, an increasingly common phenomenon in today's workplace.

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On one side are those who say diversity training needs to be intensely personal and dramatic to sensitize employees to the experiences of colleagues who may come from radically different backgrounds than their own. On the other side are those who say the training, however well-intended, often turns into an exercise in political correctness, in which white males are the bad guys and every one else is a victim.

For Ms. Eberhardt, 50, the lawsuit has become a gantlet of sorts for her and her company.

Her consulting work for the FAA, which says it has paid her $1.18 million since 1992, has been put on hold. The federal Inspector General, which had begun investigating FAA training 2 1/2 years ago over complaints about another program, has expanded the probe recently to include the allegations against Ms. Eberhardt's seminars.

And she worries that the controversy could hurt her ability to attract new clients, though her firm is not being sued.

All the attention is at odds with what Ms. Eberhardt calls her "laid-back" style.

"People expect to see this abrasive person," says Ms. Eberhardt, who has been doing various forms of business consulting and group training for about 20 years.

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Instead they find a woman who personifies the liberal, personal-growth, therapeutic culture that has taken root to such an extent that even the president of the United States attends workshops where he talks about growing up as a fat boy and unabashedly says things like, "I feel your pain."

Ms. Eberhardt speaks carefully and with pervasive sensitivity: She prefers the term "people of color," for example, to "minorities," because, after all, they aren't minorities if you look at the world at large. And, even as she disputes Mr. Hartman's account of the seminar, she makes clear that even his complaint should be listened to.

"I have a lot of empathy for white men today," she says. "I think it's hard for them to adapt to all the changes in the workplace today."

A principled life

Whatever you may think of her diversity training programs, Ms. Eberhardt lives by the values she espouses. She lived in the city so she could send her son, now 21, to racially mixed schools. She and her second husband, David Peirick, an artist and sculptor, still own their Ednor Gardens rowhouse, but they have started spending more time in their mountain home in Western Maryland.

Ms. Eberhardt, whose bachelor's and master's degrees are in sociology, moved to Baltimore when she was hired by the Columbia Cooperative Ministry in 1969 to work on planning social structures for the new community in Howard County. She went on to become coordinator of the Columbia Women's Center which, until it closed in 1980, offered consciousness-raising workshops, assertiveness training and other programs.

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"It's lifelong work," she says of her interest in gender issues.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s, she was active in civil rights demonstrations and integration projects. And, it was as a student that she began seeing a larger world than the one she experienced growing up in a small Michigan town as a minister's daughter. It was not always a positive experience.

"In college, I was sexually harassed by several professors, but at that time, no one talked about things like that," she says. "There was one who was trying to put the make on me, and it was very uncomfortable."

She's done diversity work in some form for years and has watched the demand for this kind of training skyrocket. Her firm employs about 10 people -- a number that varies with the number of clients -- to help Ms. Eberhardt conduct seminars.

She refuses to name her clients, which include government agencies, private companies and utilities, for fear that they will be drawn into the controversy over the FAA seminars.

An ironic twist

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Ms. Eberhardt finds it ironic that, after years listening to complaints of discrimination and harassment from women and minorities, it is a lawsuit by a white man that gets her all the attention.

"It's hurtful to women and people of color who have heavy-duty complaints that are not picked up on," she says. "So many news reports state [Mr. Hartman's complaint] as if it definitely happened as he says it did. You know if it were a woman who complained, there would be questions about whether it actually happened. Did she ask for it, was it the way she was dressed, the way she talked."

There is some disagreement over what actually happened at the seminar Mr. Hartman attended in 1992.

Mr. Hartman, who has been an air traffic controller for 12 years, says other employees back up his story and have their own complaints about the gantlet and other exercises. Ms. Eberhardt says the woman who conducted his seminar -- and who was not available for comment because she is currently undergoing treatment for cancer -- disputes his version of events as do other participants.

Some in the FAA support Ms. Eberhardt's in-your-face techniques, including Herb McLure, the FAA's assistant administrator for human resources management.

"I can speak for myself, I went through the gantlet experience and I do not recall being touched inappropriately. In fact, I'm certain I was not touched inappropriately," says Mr. McLure, who like other top FAA managers has gone through the seminar. "I found the experience very confusing. It was the only time in my life I got insight into the helplessness women feel. The gantlet works."

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Mr. Hartman, however, disputes that.

"I've talked to a lot of women I respect, my wife, friends, and the one thing they say is you can't simulate the fear women feel when they're sexually harassed," he says. "I didn't feel fear, I just felt outrage."

Connecting emotionally

Ms. Eberhardt's seminars are based on a commonly used technique called "experiential training." Rather than just talking about harassment, participants are encouraged to speak about personal experiences and re-enact what actually goes on in the workplace.

"You learn most not just with your intellect but with your emotions, by doing something and processing it," she says. "Otherwise, you get a lot of denial. People say they've heard of sexual harassment, but it doesn't happen here."

She says she tailors workshops to match the organization. The FAA was a particularly hostile work environment for women and minorities.

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"Every company has its own personality, its own culture," she says. "We don't have an off-the-shelf thing that we do for everyone. We like to diagnose what's going on in the organization's culture, what would fit in. We wouldn't do the same seminar we do for the FAA for other clients."

For the FAA, sexual harassment was a safety issue as well as a serious behavioral problem, Mr. McLure says. In one case, a female air traffic controller was "fondled by a co-worker and had to decide which to deal with, the airplane in the sky or the employee," he says.

The field of diversity training is so new that there are no guidelines on who is qualified to be a diversity consultant or what sort of techniques are effective. Yet more and more organizations are hiring consultants to work with their employees. The Conference Board, a New York-based business research organization, says that about 60 percent of large companies offer some sort of diversity training.

While the quality of such training can be uneven, David Thomas, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, says some complaints are prompted by resistance from employees or managers to actually changing the culture of the workplace.

And some dispute whether highly charged, role-reversal techniques always get the desired results.

"Diversity training certainly is needed, but I think there are some foolish programs out there," says Arnold Packer, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Institute of Policy Studies.

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Mr. Packer was one of the authors of the 1987 Hudson Institute groundbreaking report, "Workforce 2000," that discussed the changing face of the American work force and helped create the demand for diversity training. "Clearly you have to get to people's emotions, but I don't think you have to offend people. [The FAA seminar] certainly has backfired on them."

"I think this confrontational type approach, 99 percent of the people I've spoken to don't think it's appropriate for the workplace," agrees Michael Wheeler, a research associate with the Conference Board who recently reviewed diversity training programs at various businesses.

"Some programs become a soapbox, you hear all these things about how bad white men are. A lot of these programs are conducted by women and minorities. But then, I can see how people would say about white men, what would they know about this?" he adds.

Taken out of context

Ms. Eberhardt acknowledges that some of her techniques sound controversial when taken out of context.

"There's an emotional content to diversity training," she says. "There has to be.

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"The fact that there's been so much resistance tells me we're doing something right," she adds. "Most people reject change when it hits at some of our core issues."

Ms. Eberhardt says FAA employees are asked to evaluate the seminar after they've taken it, and most are positive.

But the seminars have also drawn complaints, including one from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCO) which has 11,000 members. The complaint was recently resolved by the FAA agreeing to pay employees who say they've been damaged by the seminars and allowing the union input in developing training programs that it believes more suitable.

Mr. Hartman, however, is the first man to legally challenge the seminars. The government has until Nov. 2 to respond to his lawsuit, which has taken its toll on everyone involved. While Ms. Eberhardt talks about how the FAA is a "hostile environment" for women and minorities, Mr. Hartman says the hostility currently is directed at people like him.

"The FAA is a strange culture -- it's very intimidating. Nothing would be said outright, but I've heard from supervisors who are my friends that I've put my career in the toilet by filing this lawsuit," he says.

As for Ms. Eberhardt, she, too, is wary of the effect the controversy will have on her career and her firm's future.

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"I asked my publisher if I should change my name," says Ms.

Eberhardt, who has written several books on gender issues.

Still, she says, businesses know what they're getting when they hire her firm, perhaps now more than ever before.

"Just last year, someone called and said, 'We want you to do some diversity training, we want just half a day, nothing too confronting,' " she recalls. "I said, 'I really don't think you want me.' "


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