Consultant's confrontational methods aim to reduce workplace bias incidents


Jim Karantonis is a traveling insurance salesman offering an unusual product: protection against racial and sexual harassment in the workplace and the legal complications that can result.

The Ellicott City-based consultant and founder of Human Relations & Communications, Inc., sells himself to employers and employees as someone who can help reduce on-the-job bias incidents while forging a healthier and more productive working environment.

And he does it with a method that is both memorable and, at times, confrontational.

Put him in a room of men and women, and the first thing he will say is: "All men are sexist." He'll often prod them into giving examples of words that they find objectionable. "Tell me when I offend you," he'll ask.

The idea, said Mr. Karantonis, a resident of Columbia's Village of Wilde Lake, is trying to break down the wall that keeps people from discussing a problem of which they are painfully aware.

"What surprises me the most is how much people want to talk about these issues and how scared they are to do so," he said. "With their families, yes, they talk. But otherwise, no."

In his work as a consultant on issues of race and sex, Mr. Karantonis has led training sessions for groups as diverse as the Steelworkers of America and the American Association of University Women, the Annapolis Police Department and the U.S. Postal Service.

Last month, he talked with 125 teachers at the National $l Education Association's annual conference in Minneapolis. And for the past three years, he has also served on the Howard County Human Rights Commission.

"He covers all the diversity topics -- sexual, cultural and ethnic. These are serious issues, but he's light, energetic, and he makes them easy to accept," said Tom Gregor, director of employee development at Webcraft Technologies, in Hersham, Pa., who has hired Mr. Karantonis twice and says he will do so again. "People usually get bored after an hour, but with him they want more."

Jan Nyquist, chair of the Howard human rights commission, added, "He brings a wealth of information to our commission."

Mr. Karantonis has more than 20 years of experience in civil rights and communications. He has worked with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and for the West Virginia Commission on Civil Rights, and with private industry.

All along, he has worked on racial and gender issues in training seminars.

He gave his first seminar in 1974, talking to a Kiwanis Club in West Virginia about racism. In 1979, he was hired to lead a session on sexual harassment for the Army Corps of Engineers.

In his gender and racial relations seminars, Mr. Karantonis' goal is to get co-workers talking to each other about what bothers them. That is not always easy. In March, for example, Mr. Karantonis spoke to a group of construction workers in Minnesota.

"There, I dealt with a group that was 99 percent men," he said. "A lot of these people felt it was going to be punishment."

To spark audience participation, he uses terms that will shock people. It doesn't take much, given the sensitivity of many people to some everyday terms.

Words and their meaning in society are always changing, he said. "Like 'secretary. Some people don't like being called a 'secretary,' but I won't know unless I'm told," he said.

Only when groups of people are communicating with each other do they start to understand what is offensive to their co-workers, he said.

There is a definite market for his services.

In 1994, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 32,124 complaints about race discrimination on the job and 23,080 about sex discrimination.

Mr. Karantonis warns that seminars such as his -- for which he charges $1,500 a day -- shouldn't be the only attempt by people to confront and overcome their biases.

"Pick up a magazine and look at the advertisements," he said. "That'll tell you what our society says about differences. You almost never see a handicapped person in a perfume ad. And the stereotypes we get from magazines are not the diversity we are always talking about getting to in our society."

If you are white, he suggested, buy several black-oriented magazines at a store and be aware of your reactions under the gaze of the cashier at the checkout counter. Then read the magazines and keep track of your feelings.

"Only then will you be able to understand African-Americans when they are talking to you," he said.

And he urges people to confront family members or friends who make racist or sexist comments.

"It's just the beginning," he said of his training sessions. "This training doesn't happen in a short period of time. It has to be reinforced."

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