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Diversity and the Workplace
A diverse body of talent with fresh ideas and perspectives is one of the essential ingredients to a company's long-term success.
As you look around your office, is everyone just like you? Probably not. The demographics of the American workforce have changed dramatically over the last 50 years. In the 1950s, more than 60% of the American workforce consisted of white males. They were typically the sole breadwinners in the household, expected to retire by age 65 and spend their retirement years in leisure activities. Today, the American workforce is a better reflection of the population with a significant mix of genders, race, religion, age and other background factors.
The long-term success of any business calls for a diverse body of talent that can bring fresh ideas, perspectives and views to their work. The challenge that diversity poses, therefore, is enabling your managers to capitalize on the mixture of genders, cultural backgrounds, ages and lifestyles to respond to business opportunities more rapidly and creatively.
Here are two examples of the challenges inherent in managing a diverse workforce:
An American health insurance company hired employees from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. The variety of different native languages and cultures, however, did not mix. Instead of making employees feel that they had a sub-group within their larger team, it gave rise to paranoia ("They must be talking about me.") and assumptions ("They think they are smarter than everyone else."). When the group needed to learn a new intake system, rather than pull together, they became even more estranged and productivity and morale plummeted.
In an American subsidiary of a global bank based in Japan, a few Japanese female workers complained to management that their older Japanese male bosses were being disrespectful to them. The human resources manager questioned all of the women in the office. Every Japanese woman reported problems with the Japanese men. In contrast, the American women reported no problems at all. Confused, the human resources manager questioned the Japanese male managers. The answer? The Japanese men responded that they understood American expectations related to sexual harassment, so they were careful about what they said to the American women. They were perplexed by the responses of the Japanese women. "What is the problem?" ?the Japanese men wanted to know, "They know that we don't mean anything. Any Japanese person would understand." Communication, which has never been straightforward and easy in the first place, is becoming even more complicated as organizations take on global partners.
Diversity is no longer just a black/white, male/female, old/young issue. It is much more complicated and interesting than that. In The Future of Diversity and the Work Ahead of Us, Harris Sussman says, "Diversity is about our relatedness, our connectedness, our interactions, where the lines cross. Diversity is many things - a bridge between organizational life and the reality of people's lives, building corporate capability, the framework for interrelationships between people, a learning exchange, a strategic lens on the world."
A benefit of a diverse workforce is the ability to tap into the many talents which employees from different backgrounds, perspectives, abilities and disabilities bring to the workplace. An impressive example of this is found on the business cards of employees at one Fortune 100 technology company. Employees at this company have business cards that appear normal at first glance. On closer inspection, the raised Braille characters of employee information are evident.
Many companies, however, still face challenges around building a diverse environment. Part of the reason is the tendency to pigeonhole employees, placing them in a different silo based on their diversity profile. If an employee is male, over 50, English, and an atheist, under what diversity category does this employee fall? Gender, generational, global or religious? In the real world, diversity cannot be easily categorized and those organizations that respond to human complexity by leveraging the talents of a broad workforce will be the most effective in growing their businesses and their customer base.
So, how do you develop a diversity strategy that gets results? The companies with the most effective diversity programs take a holistic approach to diversity by following these guidelines:
In the book, Beyond Race and Gender, R. Roosevelt Thomas defines managing diversity as "a comprehensive managerial process for developing an environment that works for all employees." Successful strategic diversity programs also lead to increased profits and lowered expenses.
The long-term success of any business calls for a diverse body of talent that can bring fresh ideas, perspectives and views and a corporate mindset that values those views. It's also no secret that the lack of diversity can affect your ability to communicate effectively with diverse clients. Link your diversity strategies to specific goals like morale, retention, performance and the bottom line. Build your business with everything you've got, with the complex multi-dimensional talents and personalities of your workforce, and make diversity work for you.
About the Author: Judith Lindenberger, Principal, The Lindenberger Group, LLC
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