Divided On Diversity

Through years of conducting training workshops on managing workplace diversity, I’ve discovered that on the whole, most organisations and leaders view diversity through one of two lenses. The first lens perceives diversity as a problem – as yet another challenge of operating in today’s business environment. Their take on how best to handle workplace diversity is to seek solutions to mitigate and minimise any issues that might arise from insensitivity, misunderstandings, and prejudices. 

The second group embraces diversity as an asset. Despite acknowledging that diversity could potentially bring about additional challenges, they believe that if managed appropriately, diversity itself can be leveraged to produce better organisational results. 

Diversity's Role in 2017

Workforce diversity can be seen in terms of Age, Gender. Race, Ethnic Composition, Religion and Nationality. The trend towards diverse workforces has been increasing over time, but its importance within organisations and teams is more pronounced now than ever before.

Wayne F Cascio, in his book Managing Human Resource: Productivity, Quality of Work Life, Profits, lists 5 reasons as to why diversity is becoming increasingly important:

  • A shift from a manufacturing to a service economy
  • Globalization
  • Innovative business strategies that demand teamwork
  • Mergers and Alliances
  • Changing labour market conditions

Unlike jobs in the manufacturing industry, service industry job holders need to maintain close and constant contact with their customers, understanding their needs and expectations. With an ever increasing customer base that is diverse, no business firm has the luxury to ignore any customer group. Organisations need employees and teams who understand and can relate to the diverse customer base. In the words of Cascio, the “workforce should mirror their customers”.

Recognising the limited local market, corporations have looked globally to sustain and enhance market share. With globalization, business organisations need to learn how to manage workforce diversity. Integrating an organisation’s culture (originating in the head office of one country) with the local culture of subsidiaries and international offices becomes necessary. To avoid culture shock and clash of cultures, organisations need a system whereby employees at all levels understand and accept their differences while working towards taking full advantage of the diversity that has arisen.

Embracing Diversity

Let us return to the two groups of thought with regards to diversity. This discourse in perception is more than just academic. Proponents of the first group seek to suppress the knock-on effects of diversity, while those of the latter wish for diversity to flourish.

Advocates of diversity look for ways to best leverage their asset. They implement new structures and work practices that are radically different from traditionally-minded management approaches, putting together the building blocks of a fair, effective, and collaborative working environment. Leaders of these organisations understand that, at its core, the purpose of managing diversity is to bring out the best of peoples’ Talent, Abilities, Skills and Knowledge for the benefit of individual employees, their teams, and the well-being of the overall organization. When workforce diversity is managed well, no employee feels disadvantaged. Such a culture brings about higher levels of motivation, creativity, and efficiency.

Long term, there are no surprises as to which of these two groups will be more successful. 

Cascio, in the same book, recommends a few questions leaders can ask in order to give credence to the fact that diversity is a competitive factor:

  • How can diversity help business corporations expand their operation into global markets?
  • How can diversity help to build and sustain brand equity and improve consumer spending?
  • How does workforce diversity enhance an organisation’s HR strategies?
  • How does the diversity element build corporate image among the consumers?
  • Does diversity improve operational efficiency? How?

Asking – and truthfully answering – these questions allows leaders and organisations to really open themselves up to the need for diversity, and understand the possibilities that diversity has to offer. 

How to Leverage Your Asset

To extract value from any asset, one must first understand how to use it. The same applies with diversity. Organisations need to train their employees on diversity and its usefulness within the organisation, their team, and themselves. Employees need to understand and value the differences among them. This acceptance of differences in a positive manner is especially critical if an organisation is keen to enable innovation through creative thinking and collaboration.

If you have any questions about this article, need more information about how this works with regards to your company/team, or simply want to say “Hi”, feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].