Working with diversity

As you know, the U.S. population is quickly becoming more diverse. But you probably didn't know the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) projects the country's population will increase 49 percent to 420 million by 2050. And U.S. Census Bureau projections suggest the percentage of Americans who are white but not Hispanic will drop from 69 percent in 2000 to 50 percent in 2050. In 1950, 90 percent of the U.S. population was white but not Hispanic.

Consequently, the U.S. work force also is changing and becoming more diverse, and DOL expects this rate of change to accelerate during the 21st century. In fact, DOL reports the current likelihood of working with or managing a multicultural team is nearly 100 percent.

Diversity at work essentially is the collective mix of differences and similarities encountered in the work force, workplace and marketplace. And though diversity among employees offers the potential for a positive, productive workplace, it easily can lead to chaos, confusion, controversy, suspicion, conflict, tension and discord, as well.

To properly manage diversity in your company, you must be committed to getting to know your employees as individuals, not as part of their cultural group identities.

Diversity's benefits

Much research has been conducted that demonstrates employees in organizations with multicultural diversity and strong inclusive cultures demonstrate higher levels of engagement, and their companies tend to outperform other companies within the same industry.

For example, a University of Pennsylvania study of 3,000 companies showed that 10 percent of revenue used for capital improvements (technology, etc.) in those companies boosted productivity 3.8 percent, but 10 percent of revenue used to develop human capital increased productivity 8.5 percent.

Additionally, according to Corporate Culture and Performance, an investigation of the role that culture can play in businesses' success conducted by James Heskett and John Kotter, companies with strong inclusive cultures outperform their industry peers in revenue growth, stock price, return on investment, turn­over rate, net income and other financial measures. Heskett and Kotter, who are Harvard Business School professors, studied more than 200 blue chip enterprises in 22 industries during an 11-year period.

And according to The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, employees in multicultural workplaces demonstrate improved decision-making skills. Surowiecki says the highest-quality decisions are reached when a team is diverse, dispersed and independent and has the capability to manage collective judgment.

These findings indicate having a diverse work force can produce bottom-line value for your company. However, your actions and attitudes, as well as those of your company's management, are paramount to achieving these benefits.

Many employers, by design or inactivity, choose to do nothing about managing diversity. This approach can have damaging consequences; if your employees are not connected and committed to your workplace, they will not feel compelled to contribute to your company. Establishing an effective diversity management strategy can encourage your employees to connect with their co-workers and commit to their workplace.

Diversity management

Diversity management entails creating an environment that naturally enables all employees to contribute to their full potential in pursuit of organizational objectives.

In effect, diversity management is a deliberate effort to manage the reality that increasing diversity is a fact of business life. Your diversity management strategy's goal should not simply be to acquire a more diverse work force; it should be to get the best possible results from each individual on your team.

Managing relationships is the most important aspect of diversity management. To effectively manage your relationships with employees, you must recognize you react to some employees differently than you react to others. If you acknowledge this fact, you will be able to manage relationships more effectively and work to change your biases.

I recommend you spend time, energy and resources getting to know individual workers instead of lumping them together based on their cultural group identities. Having effective relationships with your employees will allow you to get the best results from all members of your multicultural work force.

Some truths

Diversity, by nature, creates complexity in the workplace. If a majority of your employees share similar backgrounds and experiences and think, act and look alike, there is a level of certainty and predictability about workplace interactions. This level of certainty can become significantly lower when your work force consists of employees from various cultures.

As you face increasing diversity in your workplace, you easily can be tripped up by your reactions to employees' differences. Employers who feel a sense of ease, comfort and control in carrying out their role with employees who are from similar cultural backgrounds may fail when they are thrust into managing a more diverse work force. Some may even blame lack of performance or low productivity on cultural differences rather than take rightful account­ability for lack of results.

It can be confusing to determine how to manage groups or teams made up of various cultural influences. For instance, it is easy to assume you can manage multicultural groups by learning about various cultures and ethnicities. However, the simple truth is: No two people in any cultural group are exactly the same.

Culture can be defined as an individual's or group's sense of how things should be done based on their conditioning, values and experiences.

It is unlikely you will be able to determine someone's culture simply by looking at them or listening to them speak. Race, ethnicity and gender are contributing factors to culture, but they do not define a person's culture. For instance, not all Hispanic or Spanish-speaking people share the same culture. Nor can you assume a Latino will necessarily have different cultural expectations than an Anglo- or African-American.

Employers often mistakenly think they can predict how employees will respond to situations based on employees' cultural identities. But you need to recognize each employee as an individual and determine his or her cultural influence by getting to know your employees personally.

Diversity management should begin with learning to recognize not only your employees as individuals but your own natural biases—the human tendency to see good versus bad, right versus wrong and us versus them in every situation. People by nature are inclined to associate these terms with specific groups of people. This can create a major barrier to establishing effective relationships within a multicultural work force.

A strategic solution

Your goal as an effective diversity manager should be to get 100 percent from your employees 100 percent of the time and to create a high-performance workplace culture. Each of your employees, regardless of his or her culture, has the ability to deliver results. And to be an effective diversity manager, you must recognize each employee as an individual.

Creating a diversity management strategy can help you maximize your team's productivity. Such a strategy should include the following:

  • A focus on building organizational capacity to recognize each individual's value
  • Recognition of individuals rather than cultural group identities
  • A clearly defined desired business outcome
  • Inclusion and involvement of all employees
  • Allowing employees to be themselves
  • Encouragement of rampant creativity and innovation

The ability to support, develop and encourage employees is, perhaps, one of the most important skills you must learn. The recognition and acceptance of employee diversity increases the complexity of this imperative because it requires the creation of an environment where every worker is valued for his or her unique contribution to your organization's success. This is the challenge of diversity management: understanding individual differences and similarities and recognizing the pivotal role you play in your employees' effectiveness.

Your biggest asset

A business depends on its employees. This is not simply a cliché or platitude—your No. 1 sustaining asset is the quality of your employees, and any mix of people you may gather will, by nature, be diverse. You will be in the best competitive position when you can effectively manage and identify with your employees by recognizing them as individuals.

Diversity's increasing presence in the work force requires you to develop a strategic response. Diversity management allows you to position your company to get the best from each individual worker. So treat diversity management as an organizational strategy and execute it like your survival depends on it—it very well may.

James O. Rodgers, CMC, MBA, is president and principal consultant of J.O. Rodgers & Associates, Decatur, Ga.



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