In the 1960’s, when one thought of an American worker, the image that came to mind was a white male in their mid 40’s in either a professional or blue collar position. The majority of employees within an organization had similar backgrounds, life styles and beliefs. Managing a homogeneous workforce was not difficult, what motivated one employee generally motivated all employees. Workers generally had comparable needs, communication styles and behaviors. Less than 50 years later, we see a much different landscape in the American workforce. Today, there is no typical American worker. Due to globalization
and immigration, changes in the economy and population, there are more woman and minorities in the workforce today. As the Baby Boomer generation ages, there are older workers in the workforce. Technology has provided opportunities for disabled workers to join the workforce. Educational opportunities have allowed the children of blue-collar families to enter the professional work environment. Managers can no longer rely on one method of communication or motivation to reach the diverse workforce.
To manage diversity, you must first understand the meaning of diversity. North Carolina State University defines diversity as “a reality created by individuals and groups from a broad spectrum of demographic and philosophical differences” (http://www2.ncsu.edu/ncsu/univ_relations/diversity/define.htm). Differences of race, sex, age, economic background, and religion are only a few examples of how a workforce may be diverse. The key is understanding and embracing these differences. Diversity is best explained by the metaphor of the stew pot. America used to be called a “melting pot” many have held that this is not an accurate analogy; Americans do not blend into an analogous goo. Consider a stew; ingredients are mixed and may pick up a slight flavor from each other, however the onion is still an onion etc. A good stew will have a unique blend of flavors; each ingredient will add something to the recipe. This is not unlike a diverse corporation. Each individual brings a unique perspective and sphere of influence. This may sound like utopia; however, there are barriers to diversity that must be overcome.
The most obvious barrier to diversity is resistance. Resistance may be a form of hatred or ethnocentricity, where a person believes only their culture is correct and all others are wrong. These people do not care to understand another culture or hold any respect for values other than their own. This is the most difficult form of resistance to overcome because these people have decided they do not want to change. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “The mind of the bigot is like the pupil of the eye; the more light you shed upon it, the more it contracts.” Overcoming this bias may be nearly impossible. “The person holding the bias feels that their inflexible belief is benefiting them in some way and, because of that benefit, just doesn’t want to let it go” (www.theiderman.com). Fear is another reason for resistance. Diversity requires changes and people fear change. Many people do not understand what diversity means and believe in a diverse environment “their power or privilege are threatened” (www.diversityinitiative.org). They may worry that diversity will create an oppressive environment where some are held back to increase the opportunities for others. Others may fear that they will have to reject the values they maintain. Many are fearful of what they do not understand.
Cultures and values that are different from their own may be frightening. An effective manager can step up as a role model and encourage the sharing of ideas. Many employees find that once they learn even a small amount about a culture, they become curious instead of fearful and are anxious to learn more. Dr. Samuel Betances, professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University says:
“Education universalizes the human spirit. You cannot be universalized if you are only in one world, the world of your ethnic group, the world of your neighborhood, the world of your religion, or the world of your family. The word ‘university’ is related to this idea. Our lives are enhanced when we understand and appreciate many worlds. It has been said that if you gain a new language, you gain a new world. I believe that the reverse is also true: if you lose a language, you lose a world. When our spirit is universalized, we can cross boundaries and feel comfortable in other worlds. We can teach and learn from others in a mutually supportive effort to acquire a profound respect for the human condition”
As more members of the organization embrace diversity, the level of fear is reduced and a ripple effect commences bringing additional employees on board. Even employees resistant due to prejudice may find that they are learning despite themselves.
One method for reducing fear and bias is a process Diversity Consultant Dr. Sondra Thiederman calls “kinship groups.” It is based on the theory that if people can find a characteristic to relate to in another group or person, the concept of “them” is transformed into the idea of “us”. This characteristic could be based on race, gender, age or any other of dozens of human attributes. “The virtue in the notion of a kinship group is that it allows each of us to belong to many groups at once depending on the characteristic on which we focus. It also, and this is the best part, enables us to broaden our group to include many populations that we previously thought of as different from ourselves” (www.thiederman.com). Once we begin to relate to others, we see them as individuals and can then explore the uniqueness of each individual. Diversity has obvious personal advantages, this sharing of ideas and information can lead to new experiences, friendships and a richer life. However, corporations are learning that diversity brings benefits to the organization as well as its members.
When a company is sensitive to diversity, they will have a true competitive edge. These companies will attract a broad range of applicants and reduce employee turnover. Tension is decreased; employees feel more comfortable and are more likely to resolve conflicts in an affable manner. Productivity will increase. The risk of litigation from harassment or discrimination suits is reduced. The creative process in enriched; different people bring different perspectives, ideas and solutions. When employees are in an environment in which they feel secure and confident, they are more likely to make suggestions and think outside the box without fear of attack.
One way for managers to increase the comfort level of employees is by understanding the communication styles of different groups. For example, in middle-class white America, direct eye-contact is a sign of attention and respect. Conversely, many cultures believe that direct-eye contact is a sign of hostility and attentive may be shown by closing ones eyes to shut out all distractions. The employee that does not speak up to correct an error in a meeting may be doing so out of respect, not for lack of concern for details. By paying attention to the innuendos of communication styles of different cultures, a manager can reduce frustration and miscommunication. Understanding a company’s workforce can also affect the company’s market share.
A company with a diverse workforce has the ability to reach a broader market. Employees can provide insight that can be extremely valuable. For example, different cultures have different values. An automobile advertisement that speaks about the speed and flashiness of a car may appeal to one culture, while another culture would be attracted by the price and reliability of the car. A diverse workforce can also assist in the global market. Companies operating on a global scale also need to be mindful of language differences when working with other cultures. The “Got Milk?” campaign that was highly successful in the United States was almost an embarrassment when launched in Spanish speaking markets. Latina advertising executive Anita Santiago caught the error, which had been overlooked by English speaking members of the board. “As Santiago pointed out to Manning during the initial stages of the Hispanic campaign, ‘Got Milk?’ can translate to ‘Are you lactating?’ in Spanish. As importantly, Hispanic women did not find running out of rice, beans or milk funny, thus negating the general market Milk Deprivation Strategy” (www.hispanicbusiness.com). With her help and insight into the Hispanic culture, they launched the “Familia Amor y Leche” (“Family, Love and Milk.”) campaign, which was extremely successful. Employees can provide management and co-workers with etiquette, language, and cultural insights that could make or break a deal in a foreign nation. A diverse workforce also fosters good will with consumers; consumers of any particular group are more likely to purchase goods or services from a company when they see members of their group are employed by the company.
Managing diversity is not without its challenges, but the rewards, both personal and corporate well outweigh the struggles. When a manager treats each employee fairly, without regard to race, sex, or other attributes; an environment that fosters reward for hard work and creativity is sure to follow. Miscommunications are sure to remain, but with understanding and respect, they will be met with amusement instead of frustration or resentment.
Hurwitt, Mara. “Celebrating Diversity” Kind Planet. July 20, 2005.
Thiederman, Sondra Ph.D. “Bias-Free Leadership” August 2004. Cross-Cultural
Communications July 19, 2005.
“Diversity Initiative” November 12, 1997. North Carolina State University. July 20, 2005.
“Enablers and Barriers to Diversity” 2005. Diversity Initiative. July 19, 2005.
“From ‘Are You Lactating’ to ‘Family, Love & Milk’: Inside the Milk Board’s Hispanic Campaign” May 7, 2005. Hispanic Business.com . July 20. 2005.