Managing workplace diversity
According to a study at Cornell University (2010), workplace diversity is a people issue, focused on the differences and similarities that people bring to an organization. It addresses issues specified legally in equal opportunity and affirmative action non-discrimination statutes. Too often, organizational perceptions and beliefs around workplace diversity are centered on our demographic differences. Issues related to demographic differences include, but are not limited to age, disabilities, gender, lifestyle, nationality, race, religion and sexual orientation.
In theory, diversity is considered to be inclusive of everyone. In many ways, diversity initiatives complement non-discrimination compliance programs by creating the workplace environment and organizational culture for making differences work. Those differences go beyond demographic ones and can also include profession, education, parental status and geographic location. Furthermore, workplace diversity relates to our competencies, business acumen, training and experience.
Managing a diverse workforce is not a science, it is an art. There is no roadmap or “how-to guide” on successfully leading a diverse team. Add the strategic operations of a virtual workforce where members of the team are dispersed in numerous locations—across town or across the globe (where language differences can come into play)—and the challenges increase (Shen, Chanda, D’Netto & Monga, 2009). Diversity is about learning from others who are not the same, about dignity and respect for all, and about creating workplace environments and practices that encourage learning from others and capture the advantage of diverse perspectives (Cornell University, 2010).
Demographic versus professional differences
The manner in which our demographic differences are addressed is not the same as how our professional areas of expertise are addressed. Briefly consider the following real-life scenarios in the corporate America environment. First, the workplace/team-building celebrations at the end of December are no longer called Christmas parties, but holiday parties. Second, many companies have opted to change their vacation benefits from including religious or cultural type days. They give all employees a specified amount of “personal” days (typically 2-3 weeks) to use as deemed appropriate. These behaviors demonstrate an atmosphere of inclusiveness and respect for employees.
On the other hand, consider the workplace dynamic of how the values and opinions of employees with different professions are managed. Are the viewpoints and opinions of leaders in the finance, accounting or operations departments regarded and respected in the same manner as those of leaders in the HR or IT departments? Are employees in every department invited to participate in key decision-making discussions? Involving those with different viewpoints can help provide a competitive advantage, and possibly present innovative advancements not considered in the past (Lockwood, 2005; Tetteh, 2008).
Conversely, intolerance and lack of acceptance of workplace diversity (in all of its forms) can lead to harassment, discrimination and possibly violence. Simultaneously, lack of acceptance can lead to poor employee morale and poor team productivity. In a publicly held company, lack of team productivity and effectiveness, or negative news about employee relations can lead to devaluation of the corporation’s stock price (Cook & Glass, 2009).
Leaders’ role in managing diversity
Because there is no definitive process for managing a diverse organization, each leader must conscientiously observe and develop these practices through their experiences. However, this development must begin with a comprehensive list of other attitudes, behaviors and values the leader must already possess in their “toolbox” of skills such as honesty, integrity and communication. Without this existing skill set, a leader will find the challenges of building confidence and trust and managing a diverse team difficult to accomplish.
Hiring, developing, promoting and rewarding employees based solely on their diverse backgrounds instead of on their knowledge, skills, abilities and competencies will not lead to an effective workforce. Although this short-term, situational/transactional leadership practice may suffice to comply with Equal Employment Opportunity regulations, the probability of producing a high-performing, long-term, sustainable team is minimal. There is a viable pipeline of competent and capable professionals within the U.S. workforce—both inside and outside of the corporation. It is the responsibility of corporate leaders to openly demonstrate and champion diversity by investing the time and effort to identify, invite, and include those with different backgrounds into the organization.
Lockwood, N.R. (2005, June). Workplace diversity: Leveraging the power of difference for competitive advantage. HR Magazine, 50(6).
Shen, J., Chanda, A., D'Netto, B., & Monga, M. (2009). Managing diversity through human resource management: An international perspective and conceptual framework. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 20(2), 235-251.
Tetteh, V. (2008, June). Diversity in the workplace. Research Starters – Business, 1-15.