Diversity in the Workplace Essay

Generally when someone begins speaking about diversity in the workplace, thoughts of Affirmative Action, racial diversity, or even sexual equality are usually foremost in our thoughts. However, diversity in the workplace really is so much more than this, we must also consider aging workers, handicapped workers, those with alternative lifestyles, and even physical traits to name others (For the sake of simplification, throughout this paper these will usually be included in the term, minorities). Gender, racial, and ethnic diversity means different things to different people.

Some believe that diversity is about quotas, and affirmative action. Others believe that diversity is something that will happen on its own with out intervention. Some experts who study diversity, however, believe that diversity is not something that should be left up to chance. It is important, therefore, for organizations to take action to encourage and foster diversity in the workplace (Clarke, 1995, p. 13). Diversity in the work place has generally been thought of as purely an employment equity issue.

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However, diversity is coming to be recognized as an asset which can, like any other asset that is well managed, contribute to the bottom line. Diversity is growing almost as quickly as the number of software vendors at an accounting convention (Talbot-Allen, 1995, p. 3) Defining Diversity One of the best definitions for diversity I have come across says, “Diversity is the mosaic of people who bring a variety of backgrounds, styles, perspectives, values, and beliefs as assets to the groups and organizations with which they interact ” (Rasmussen, 1996, p. 74). This definition has three noteworthy points.

First, it describes diversity as a mosaic, which is different form the traditional label of a melting pot. A mosaic enables people to retain their individuality while contributing collectively to the bigger picture. Second, this definition of diversity applies to and includes everyone; it does not rule out anyone. According to this definition, we are all diverse. Finally, this definition describes diversity as an asset, as something desirable and beneficial!

When viewed from this perspective valuing diversity is openness, fun, and can even be a cause for celebrating in discovering how we can join together to create more as a united team than any one of us can on our own. It is vital to business survival that the workplaces strive to attain this ideal collaboration. Collaboration provides a logical structured and disciplined framework for creating a workplace where cultural change happens because members of a company accept responsibility for behaving differently, and they are willing to be held accountable to each other for that new behavior (Marshall, 1995, p. 60).

The American workplace is changing and is expected to change at an even more accelerated rate in the near future. This change represents a move away from dominance by the white-Anglo male toward an increasingly diverse and segmented population. This workplace will include growing numbers of women, people of color, people of different ethnic backgrounds, aging workers, workers with a variety of physical handicaps, and people with alternative lifestyles. The workplace must endeavor “…to understand and use the full range of human potential within a very diverse population…”(Wentling & Palma-Rivas, 1998, p. 235).

How well organizations deal with this demographic shift from a workforce made up primarily of the white-Anglo male, to one including more nontraditional and diverse workers will directly affect the bottom line. Only companies that have cultures that support diversity will be able to retain the best talent necessary to remain competitive. Diversity is not the same thing as employment equity. Employment equity is usually tied to legislation and focuses on preventing or correcting discriminatory practices that apply to designated groups. In contrast, diversity is voluntary and it looks at every employee in the organization.

Again, it is a matter of inclusion not exclusion. Basis for Diversity in the Workplace Managing diversity is both a challenge and an opportunity for management. It is a challenge because it requires organizational change; it means fostering a cultural environment that values differences and maximizes the potential of all employees. It is an opportunity because organizations that proactively address diversity have a competitive advantage. They are able to attract, motivate and retain high potential employees. And they have greater customer satisfaction and loyalty.

These advantages translate into higher productivity and bottom-line profitability (Anonymous, 1997, p. 9). We must begin by recognizing the unique cultures of different racial, gender, ethnicities, abilities, differing lifestyles, etc. , provide the basis for new perspectives on understanding organizational behavior. This perspective starts with the assumption that each cultural group organizes and defines experience within it’s own set of cultural systems. Research has suggested that men, women, and the various minorities do not share a common culture of organizational life.

The implication is that each group identifies, defines, and organizes it’s experience in the organization in unique ways (Fine, Johnson, & Ryan, 1990, p. 306, 317). A number of factors account for these differing experiences. First, the context of organizational life is different for each group. For instance, women hold lower level positions at lower salaries than men, therefore, they tend to see the organization from the bottom. Minority employees are fewer in number, so, they view the organization in an isolation perspective. Second, each group appears most comfortable communicating within their own group.

Since access to communication networks determines the particular information we receive, different groups receive different information through with to interpret the world. Third, the cultures of gender and race give unique perspectives on organizing experiences. Women and minorities identify interpersonal barriers as obstacles to their success, while white men see formal structures and policies as eliminating any obstacles. The patterns are similar to those Gilligan described in comparing how women and men create moral order. According to Gilligan, men define moral order in terms of hierarchy, separation, and abstraction.

Women define moral order in terms of interpersonal relationships (as cited in Fine, Johnson, & Ryan, 1990, p. 317) Any organization operates within larger cultural frameworks, and the employees in that organization bring their cultural influence with them. Therefore is stands to reason that the cultures of gender and race help shape how workers view organizations. I have touched on the aspect that to compete successfully in an increasingly interdependent environment, businesses will have to refine their ability to manage, and benefit, from diversity. Diversity in the workplace is no longer just theory.

Businesses have begun scrambling to understand the implications. Some examples of companies that have implemented successful diversity programs are Slectron, a high-tech company based in California’s Silicon Valley. Its 3,200 employees include 30 nationalities speaking 40 languages and dialects. After launching an internal cultural awareness program to help its diverse work force better understand each other and work together, Solectron has more than tripled its revenues during the last three years and won a highly respected Baldridge prize (Bloch, 1998, on-line).

Voice Processing Corp. , a small Massachusetts company, has, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, turned a potential Tower of Babel into a competitive advantage worldwide. Its headquarter staff of only 440 represent 11 nationalities an speak 30 languages. Without their diverse employees, they could not have successfully produced or marketed the company’s voice-recognition software program.

Foreign customers are accounted for approximately half of the fiscal 1995 revenues of more than $10 million, an increase of 30 percent of pre-1994 annual sales of only $5 million (Bloch, 1998, on-line). Johnson Controls, a medical equipment manufacturer, has integrated their efforts at diversity into their extensive vision statement. They have not only included diversity awareness, but have established Diversity Committees to “examine their objectives and seek new opportunities for improving the company through diversity efforts” (Johnson Controls, 1998, on-line).

Their commitment to diversity is evidenced by such efforts as, Inroads, a program that allows Johnson Controls to identify and train young minority talent for leadership through internships and co-op assignments designed to prepare them for corporate and community leadership; Johnson Controls Foundation, supports the company commitment to valuing diversity by financially contributing to cultural and ethnically diverse organizations; Sponsorship to diverse associations via memberships, partnerships, conferences, scholarships, co-ops, advisory services, job fairs, loaned executives, and their mentoring program.

An excellent example of a business taking their commitment to diversity into the worldwide arena, is Avon Mexico. Their initiative not only stresses creating career opportunities for women and a culture where women can be successful, but also supports a broad range of women’s interests in Mexico including breast cancer research, women’s athletics, academic scholarships, and cultural activities. As of 1997, in Mexico, where women make up only 20 percent of the workforce, Avon Mexico’s workforce was comprised of 54 percent of the employees and 31 percent of mangers within three reports of the president, up from 24 percent in 1993.

Additionally, Avon Mexico currently has one of the country’s few women vice presidents (Advancing Women, 1997, on-line). A recent Towers Perrin survey found that 74 percent of corporations say they have a diversity program or are planning to start one. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do? Because it fosters creativity? Because of the threat of lawsuits? Because it’s marketsavvy, and is being demonstrated to improve the corporate bottom line (Mueller, 1998, p. 7)? Many companies have confronted the issue of diversity in subtle, and structural ways.

Economically, workplace diversity is a tonic for the bottom line. A key here is that as the number of women and minorities in the work force grow, so will their influence as consumers. Companies with diverse work forces stand a better chance of tapping into those markets. Morally, regardless of its impact on the bottom line, a diverse work force may be seen as a moral imperative: in a stable society all segments of the population have a stake in the society’s prosperity and equal access to its benefits.

Innovation envisions diversity as a process and a resource rather than a problem, and it defines the goal no longer as assimilating but, instead, optimizing differences (Mueller, 1998, p. 11-13). With the emergence of the global economy, it is argued that we need to go beyond affirmative action to affirming diversity. Instead of finding ‘slots’ for women and minorities, and helping them adjust to the dominant white male style, organizations need to acknowledge and embrace a range of styles.

Rather than suppression differences between people, companies will need to learn to value differences. Workforce diversity refers to the reality of a workforce consisting of a broad mix of workers from widely differing backgrounds, genders, ages, values, and the list goes on. These groups have different needs, which must be accommodated within organizational structures if their full talents are to be utilized for the benefit of the organization. Organizations, therefore, must work to recreate structures and processes that cater to a diverse workforce (Newell, 1995, p. 142-143).

Achieving and managing diversity demands sensitivity to and respect for group and individual differences. It also requires that both managers and employees conform to a uniform code of conduct, and adhere to a basic professional etiquette (Oubre, 1997, on-line). One of the first steps to optimizing the productivity of employees is to help them intellectually and emotionally understand why different groups of people have diverse beliefs and cultural behaviors. The ultimate goal of this process is to recognize and eventually transform stereotypes of others that reinforce age-old prejudices.

When individuals are able to change their rigid views so that they can perceive others in a more favorable light, then the conflict and tension decreases (Oubre, 1997, on-line). Getting There Realizing the need for competence and accountability with diversity issues is the easy part, the hard part is figuring out how to do it. Obviously, it may be necessary at first to sponsor specific diversity courses. But eventually, diversity management should be incorporated into normal leadership training or mentoring programs.

Although initially a company may put special accountability measures in place, eventually accountability should be built into the organizations normal appraisal systems (Digh, 1998, p. 64). As with Johnson Controls, it may be advantageous for a company that looks at results as a part of their appraisal systems, to build diversity management into its mission statement, business objectives and strategies. Efforts to develop and use performance evaluations that measure diversity competencies reflect the commitment to diversity as a business benefit systems.

Performance expectations address the employees’ role in valuing and working successfully in a company that has diversity as a key workplace objective (Digh, 1998, p. 64). All of this must be paired with an understanding of the dimensions of diversity. Primary dimensions include age, race, ethnicity, physical qualities, gender and sexual orientation. Primary dimensions are aspects of ourselves, which we cannot change. They are things people know about us before we even open our mouths, because, with the exception of sexual orientation, they are physically visible.

However, an often-overlooked area is that of secondary dimensions. These are marital status, religious beliefs, education, parental status, work background, military experience, and even income and geographical location. People are usually less sensitive about secondary dimensions, because they are elements we have some power to change. We also have the choice of whether to disclose this information or not; we can conceal it. This list clearly demonstrates that we are all similar and different on an infinite number of dimensions, of which culture is only one (Rasmussen, 1996, p. 73).

In approaching the issue of diversity within an organization the first step is in discovering what diversity problems exist within an organization. A needs assessment approach can be a proactive tool for the purpose of interpreting the state of an organization in relation to a particular concern. At this stage the needs assessment is not intended to expose or punish anyone. The goal of this needs assessment is to serve as a self check on the internal operations of a company.

A critical survey of the internal structure and of existing policies and procedures may be necessary to establish a positive, affirming work environment (Diversity Training, 1998, on-line, Morrison & Crabtree, 1995, 26). Secondly, there has to be a strengthening of commitment by top-level management (Morrison & Crabtree, 1995, 47). Leadership involvement is of key importance. It is at this level that that the connection between diversity and the bottom line be clearly understood. The managers can only expect peak performance if they show genuine respect for each individual (Talbot-Allen, 1995, p. ).

Forming better work relationships among employees through better interaction and communication, more effective work teams, less conflict and misunderstandings have been shown to be some of the pluses of such commitment (Wentling & Palma-Rivas, 1998, p. 242). No matter how well-intentioned the diversity program, it won’t be worth much unless employees see top management embracing diversity as a way of life. Executives who teach by example; those willing, say, to decline membership in an all-white country club because it would send the wrong message, have the greatest impact (Mueller, 1998, p. 2).

A third step is choosing solutions that fit a balanced strategy, and then demanding results (Morrison & Crabtree, 1995, 103). Some areas that seem to be essential; performance evaluations that measure diversity competencies that reflect the commitment to diversity, tracking reports that show the representation of women and minorities, executive bonuses tied to objectives for the advancement of women and minorities, and 360-degree feedback programs that provide managers with annual reviews by bosses, and peers.

Performance expectations address the employees’ role in valuing and working successfully in a company that has diversity as a key workplace objective (Digh, 1998, p. 70). Finally, there is the issue of maintaining momentum, once the commitment has been made and processes have been set in motion is order to monitor progress. There has to be built in ‘building blocks’ to maintain the momentum (Morrison & Crabtree, 1995, p. 183). Organizations promoting diversity should be persistent in their efforts, and women and minorities should diligently utilize all their resources so they can reach their maximum potential (Steorts, 1995, p. 1).

This goes back to some of the things mentioned earlier (Bloch, 1998, on-line); on going training programs for the entry level employees, well-developed internship and coop programs that emphasize diversity, company support by financially contributing to cultural and ethnically diverse organizations, sponsoring diverse associations via memberships, partnerships, conferences, scholarships, co-ops, advisory services, job fairs, loaned executives, and mentoring programs to name a few. Ways to accustom management to workplace diversity must be found.

This can be done by including people with differences in meetings, and by giving best assignments to a diverse group of people. You should even go out of your way to do this. Then there should be a way to measure this. An effective reward system should be established. And organizations should become increasingly intolerant of failures to respect or manage diversity. Once again, most importantly is that management must “walk the talk” (Wheeler, 1997, 495). A final area to be aware of is that of collusion. Collusion is cooperation wit others, knowingly or unknowingly, to reinforce stereotypical attitudes, prevailing behaviors, and norms.

Types of collusion include; silence, denial, and active participation. This is probably still the widest form of exclusion. Collusion is common because of the way we are socialized as children. We all had to modify our own behavior to “fit in: to expectations of parents, teachers, friends and society. However, as adults, we are now able to make our own decisions about what we do and do not believe, and how to act on those decisions, rather than continuing the habit of “fitting in” (Rasmussen, 1996, p. 173).