Diversity in the workplace is a reality for all employers. Managing that diversity is an idea whose time has come. Employers of all kinds are awakening to the fact that a diverse work force is not a burden, but a potential strength.
OUR CHANGING FACE
One of the reasons for this awakening is the increasing diverse marketplace. Today, when you call many airlines to make flight reservations, the automated attendant asks if you would feel more comfortable talking to a Spanish-speaking customer service representative. Who can best understand and serve this changing market? It takes a diverse work force at all levels.
Changing demographics is an urgent reason for the increased interest in managing diversity in the workplace. The growing numbers in the U.S. labor force and its customer base will be composed largely of women, minorities, and immigrants. This group will constitute about 85 percent of the newentrants into the work force, according to the landmark Hudson Institute Study. With more diversity come varied expectations of service as well as language barriers. Customer service training consultants are adding diversity to their curriculum because customers have varied backgrounds and expect customized service. Employers realize they must attract, retain, and promote a full spectrum of people to be successful. So great is their need that advice on management of diversity has become a growth industry.
Progressive employers have developed specialized programs to deal with the work-force diversity issue. Some of these programs, known as "valuing differences programs," are geared to the individual and interpersonal level. Their objective is to enhance interpersonal relationships among employees and to minimize blatant expressions of racism and sexism. Often these programs focus on the ways that men and women or people of different races or cultures have unique values, attitudes, behavior styles, and ways of thinking. These educational sessions can vary in length from one day to several days or they can occur on an ongoing basis. They usually concentrate on one or several of the following general objectives:
- Fostering awareness and acceptance of human differences
- Fostering a greater understanding of the nature and dynamics of individual differences
- Helping participants understand their own feelings and attitudes about people who are different from themselves
- Exploring how differences might be tapped as assets in the workplace
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing antidiscrimination efforts. The EEOC has identified what constitutes unlawful harassment: It is verbal or physical conduct that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual because of his or her race, color, religion,
gender, national origin, age, or disability or that of his or her friends, relatives, or associates. It must also create a hostile work environment, interfere with work performance, and affect one's employment opportunities. Some states, cities, and employers have also included sexual orientation in their antidiscrimination policies.
Examples of harassment include epithets, slurs, negative stereotyping, or threatening acts toward an identified person or group. Other examples include written or graphic material placed on walls, bulletin boards, or elsewhere on the employer's premises that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group. Included in this definition are acts that purport to be pranks but in reality are hostile or demeaning.
To be illegal, harassment must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an intimidating or abusive work environment. Although courts do not usually hold employers liable for violations based on isolated derogatory remarks in the workplace, many recognize that in the right context one slur can effectively destroy a working relationship and can create a hostile environment, particularly if the comment is made by a supervisor.
At the organizational level, employers must be sensitive to a wide array of both state and federal regulations that address all types of discrimination in employment. With today's diverse workplace, the goal is to increase the chances of equal opportunity for all workers and mutual respect in the workplace.
Providing a workplace free from harassment is one of the basic responsibilities of an employer. Although sexual harassment has received most of the public attention, harassment can take many forms. As employers add staff from a variety of ethnic, religious, age, and cultural groups, maintaining a harmonious workplace is critical. Given our increasing litigious society, it is inevitable that court decisions related to other forms of harassment will increase.
Senior citizens, immigrants, and employees with disabilities are being employed in all levels of positions. They might suffer from a hostile environment because of their differences. To avoid future litigation, prudent managers need to create a hospitable environment.
A major challenge for all employers is to assimilate a variety of employees into the mainstream of corporate life. Women and minorities are sometimes excluded from social activities or left out of informal communications networks. The result appears to be a sense of isolation, lower organizational commitment, and ultimately a decision to seek employment in a more welcoming environment. For example, a woman feeling left out may think that two much emphasis is placed on getting along with others in senior management: "As a woman, I do not fit into the group of males who go to lunch together and play golf together. These are the guys who get the promotions."
As work-force diversity increases, exclusion and isolation may disappear. In the meantime, a few organizations are encouraging women's support groups, black caucuses, and other ways to help subgroups tie into social and communications networks. More importantly, organizations are becoming more sensitive to sponsoring social activities that will allow full participation by all employees.
Making prejudgments is part of human nature because we cannot anticipate every event freshly in its own right. Although prejudgments help give order to our daily living, our minds have a habit of assimilating as much as they can into categories, which can cause irrational judgments. A person acts with prejudice because of his or her personality, which has been formed by family, school, and community environments.
Prejudice has been defined as an attitude, not an actn opinion based partly on observation and partly on ignorance, fear, and cultural patterns, none of which have a rational basis. A prejudiced person tends to think of all members of a group as being the same, giving little consideration to individual differences. This kind of thinking gives rise to stereotypes. Stereotypes, like prejudices, are based partly on observation and partly on ignorance and tradition. For example, a person who assumes that all women are overly emotional is subscribing to a widely held but false stereotype of women.
Stereotypes are difficult to overcome because they usually develop over long periods of time. Some stereotypes are shared by many people, giving them an illusion of rationality. However, many people today are trying to rid themselves of stereotyped thinking about others. This effort reflects a growing consciousness that people are individuals and can and should be treated as such.
The basis of prejudice toward a subgroup of society is often found in economic or psychological factors. Most free-market countries have a diversity of social groups. The social mobility concept postulates that as one subgroup moves up in economic terms, it is replaced by a less fortunate subgroup that is seeking a better way of life.
Since the mid-1800s, various ethnic groups have immigrated to the United States in waves. Tension between subgroups is often a result of economic competition for jobs, shelter, and social status. When physical differences, religious beliefs, ethical values, and traditions differ, subgroups can feel threatened and can sometimes take inappropriate actions.
Unfortunately, there is macroeconomic gain for employers in aiding and abetting discrimination in the workplace. Competition for jobs among workers can help employers lower wages and neglect working conditions. Employers often threaten striking workers with the prospect of being replaced, since there are usually members of minority groups who are willing to take jobs that pay lower wages because they previously had little or no chance of being hired at all.
As the United States becomes more involved in international markets, business managers are becoming aware that discrimination can make a disastrous impression on potential buyers and sellers. When we preach democracy but practice discrimination, our credibility is lost. Establishing oil trade with African countries, for example, becomes more complex when Africans see the U.S. establishment discriminating against African Americans.
From its beginnings, the United States was divided by racial tensions. White settlers drove out Native Americans and, in the South, set up a system of labor based on slavery. Racism toward blacks and Native Americans is still with us today.
Minority groups come from subcultures that often have their own norms and values, which are not always understood by the majority group. For example, African Americans' social relations are sometimes characterized by an outlook they describe as ecosystem distrust. Ecosystem distrust subsumes such phenomena as lower interpersonal trust and suspicion of authority figures. When this type of outlook is brought into a traditional white, middle-class work environment, there can be misunderstandings and mistrust. Lack of awareness of these phenomena can easily lead to false assumptions by management about the worker. Due to cultural differences, many employers are conducting cross-cultural training for employees from both majority and minority groups.
Many women have felt discriminated against in the workplace. Advancement into management positions for women has been difficult. In the past decade, more and more woman have not only entered the work force but also have been promoted into management positions. Some would argue that men and women influence the workplace differently. Women exercise leadership through strong interpersonal skills, producing positive results. Male leadership can be more direct, impersonal, and focused on results. Because of the individual strengths of both men and women, a diverse leadership team incorporating different styles of leadership will do more to help employers succeed in today's marketplace.
Traditionally, women have been discriminated against in terms of pay. The wage gap continues to narrow, however. For various reasons, women's pay is gaining parity with men's. For example, many high-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared, forcing many men into jobs in lower-paying service industries.
Organizations that continue to exclude some segments of the population from their work force risk sending the subtle message that some employees and perhaps some customers are less valued, less important, and less welcome. This will have a negative effect on the bottom line.
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Rosen, Benson, and Lovelace, Kay. (1994). "Fitting Square Pegs into Round Holes." HR Magazine January: 86-88.
Smith, Vernita. (1993). "Glass Ceiling: Take Two." Human Resources Executive October: 30-33.
Did this raise a question for you?