The pros and cons to diversity

diversityIn the workplace, and from a business perspective, having a diverse workforce is no longer a question. The world is interconnected and due to the huge advances in international travel and communication, people easily move and work across borders. This article serves to remind people of the pros and cons to having a diverse workforce and provides five recommendations for recruiters and managers on how to manage one. Yes, having a diverse workforce may sound obvious, but it’s not so straightforward to manage as some might think.

Struggling with Human Nature

Diversity means difference in all manner and form. The antonym to diversity would be uniformity. In the workplace, diversity refers to the composition of your workforce – people of dissimilar background, culture, experience, psychical and mental characteristics, etc. Whereas uniformity would involve cloning Mr. One & Only – we all think the same; we all do the same; we all look the same…how boring! Why is having a diverse workforce so important? And what can backfire if people are too different? Let’s explore.

In an article about the challenges of having a diverse board, WSJ sums-up brilliantly the benefit and obstacles: diversity leads to more out-of-the box thinking; yet, it also creates contention and disunity. Although this is an article about how diversity can backfire on company boards, the same obviously applies to employees and large to small project teams. WSJ reports that if a company has a board of like-minded individuals, the following arises:
“They look at problems—and solutions—the same way. There’s no one to challenge prevailing ideas, or to speak out on issues important to certain groups of customers and employees.”

Clearly, the above scenario is something that all organizations should avoid. Why? Because the world is already complex and problems, as well as solutions, need to be looked at from every possible angle. Moreover, The thinking goes that a diverse workforce would create the opposite and more desirable environment of “more innovation, more outside-the-box thinking and better governance”. Yet although it sounds simple in theory, it’s hard to practice and even harder to achieve for one main reason: human nature!

When employees have conflicting viewpoints and find it hard to compromise, personal battles and power struggles are likely to occur, especially in a competitive environment where everyone is fighting to be noticed, to get promoted and climb up the chain-of-command. In the boardroom, WSJ describes such a scenario:
“People often feel baffled, threatened or even annoyed by persons with views and backgrounds very different from their own. The result is that when directors are appointed because their views or backgrounds are different, they often are isolated and ignored. Constructive disagreements spill over into personal battles”.
Obviously, the above situation would apply to employees working in project teams too: certain individuals may be picked-on, or marginalised, because they question the group’s intentions and purposes. In such circumstances, the difficulty for the project manager and HR department is to get people to work together, despite their personal differences; and to create an environment where people agree to disagree, but are nevertheless able to move projects forward – easily said, than done!

The colorful world we live in

Diversity today is a given and leaders can no longer ignore it. On the contrary, managers need to embrace diversity despite the difficulties of managing people with dissimilar needs and backgrounds. In “Understand the importance of diversity”, BusinessWeek explains just why: due to “speedy air travel and now even speedier internet service” the world has become interconnected. In addition, trade agreements and the free flow of labor between countries have further facilitated the process. Although that sounds rather obvious, the implications or affects of globalization on businesses are still being dealt with and experienced. Here is a perfect illustration of just how colorful and complex today’s world is:
“In the U.S. alone, the wide range of people involved in both the making and the consuming of products could include the Indian automotive engineer who is helping to take Ford to the next level; the African American statistician at a Silicon Valley startup; the 65-year-old disabled man who, instead of retiring, has just been promoted; the Gen Y child of immigrants from Central America who excels in Web marketing at Procter & Gamble; the gay woman who is the mother of two; and so on”.
Although fictitious, the above example couldn’t be truer to reality. More importantly, as the journalist later reports, “As consumers, they are all buying what your business sells—or ignoring it—depending on whether your company is as diverse as they are”. Is this true?

Taking into account only the gender composition of a workforce, recent findings in the special report from The Economist, confirms the argument that a company’s employee makeup should in fact represent their consumer audience:
“A number of studies have shown that the presence of a critical mass of women in senior jobs is positively correlated with a company’s performance and possibly with higher profits. None of them has demonstrated a causal link, but it is not implausible that companies will benefit from a more diverse workforce with a broader set of ideas. Many of their customers are probably female. In Europe and America women decide on 70-80% of all household purchases and strongly influence buying decisions even for items such as cars and computers that are generally seen as male preserves.”

Businesses today have to embrace diversity to be successful. Companies can no longer group consumers into broad categories – on the contrary, markets are now highly segmented, into various groups and sub-groups, and it’s a trend that will continue as marketers learn to practice precision targeting. To reemphasize the point, if companies wish to be profitable, they first need to understand the needs of such a disparate consumer population and second they need to cater to each and every distinct group by tailoring their products and services accordingly. How they do that? It’s by hiring, basically, their consumers!

From an employer branding perspective, businesses will thus need to attract a diverse range of employees and similarly address a disparate range of employee needs, i.e. if they wish to serve today’s consumer population. The only way to do that is by first understanding what those differences are and become sensitized to the needs, wishes and views of others. Yet as mentioned before, managing dissimilar people is complex and as the WSJ pointed out: conflicts, prejudices and battles between groups occur. Internal conflicts and power struggles – the “us versus them” scenario – will certainly hinder business progress and a company’s diversity initiative could certainly backfire. What’s the solution? First, one needs to fully understand the implications of diversity, before one learns to master it. Second, the challenge for management is to lead by example, by being open-minded, tolerant and understanding to all. Third, the test for HR is to create an atmosphere that encourages cultural diversity and simultaneously forges a common company culture or team spirit attitude, one that is essential for achieving the company’s business plan.

Below is a summary of the pros & cons to having a diverse workforce and a list of recommendations for HR to facilitate the process of building one.

Pros to diversifying

1. Innovation: people from various backgrounds and cultures don’t think or work alike, thus it encourages more outside-the-box thinking that leads to new inventions and discoveries.

2. Profitability: a diverse workforce knows how to market and sell products & services to a diverse consumer population; marketing is all about understanding the end-consumer and there is no better way of doing it than by recruiting the people you’re trying to sell to.

3. Talent pools: a wider selection of people is made available, i.e. the entire world should be your recruitment shopping basket. Why limit yourself by recruiting only those from a particular university, educational background, or career path? Be daring and venture out into the unknown – you will be surprised to find many talented and gifted people that will over-deliver and surprise you if given the right opportunity.

4. Multiformity: a variety of people with different skills and experiences are able to specialize and address various service/product areas in your business; the all-round overachiever or corporate superhero is hard to come by and it’s probably best to recruit people who have different skills and strengths instead.

Cons to diversifying

1. Conflicts: people often feel confused, threatened or even annoyed by individuals with views and backgrounds very different from their own; constructive disagreements can become power struggles and  create a bad political atmosphere that hinders project advancements.

2. Bureaucracy: decision-making can be delayed due to diverging views and opinions, thus corporate decisions and actions take time.

3. Unproductivity: dissimilar cultural identities and values, or simply said when people lack things in common, could negatively affect the overall team spirit that is essential for reaching high-levels of productivity.

4. Disunity: everyone in the company might have a different opinion on the way business should be run and managed; thus, the company might have people doing their own thing, especially if there is no protocol and authority to ensure common practices.

So taking into consideration the pros and cons of diversity, what can be done?

5 recommendations* for employers to manage a diverse workforce

1. Recognize & welcome cultural differences

That’s one step in the right direction to creating an environment of tolerance and understanding. Being a manager, encourage your employees to adopt this mindset, to challenge their belief system and to be open-minded enough to hear alternative views. It will open up horizons and make people realise that there isn’t one road to Rome, or an ultimate truth or way of doing things.

2. Adapt to new hires instead of enforcing the traditional corporate culture on them

Just as a person is expected to be flexible and be able to adapt to new circumstances, the same should apply to a company. As the world constantly changes, a company culture needs to adapt to current times. For example, a lot has been written about the Gen Y mentality and how employers should understand and adapt to this new generation in order to harness their full potential and at the same time make them work alongside Gen Xers and the soon retiring Baby Boomers.

3. Communicate and understand differences

As a leader, you should encourage people to voice their opinions and, more importantly be themselves. If employees feel like they can open-up and be their true selves, they’ll be more engaged in their job and will feel happier in the long-run, as nobody likes pretending to be something they’re not. Managers need to accept that they can’t make everyone think and act like they do.

4. Be attentive to verbal and nonverbal cues that might indicate or create tension

There are countless examples of how cultures differ in their interpretation or perception of both verbal and non-verbal communications. Managers today are expected to be culturally dexterous and be sensitive to such differences in order to not offend somebody. Here are some examples:

• “Pointing with one finger is considered to be rude in some cultures and Asians typically use their entire hand to point to something.”
• In Western culture, eye contact means you’re attentive and honest; yet for a Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, or Native American, eye contact is thought to be disrespectful or rude.
• “In Canada and Japan, people generally do not raise their voices in normal conversation. However, in Latin America, people talk loudly and it is not because they are angry.”*

5. Evaluate how diversifying affected the company’s performance in sales, efficiencies, and customers gained or lost.

This is the most telling of all recommendations. We should always question and test the purpose of things and see if indeed our diversity policy or programme is creating the results we wish for. Perhaps your diversity initiative is compromising your business performance. That doesn’t mean you should scrap diversity altogether but it might mean that you need to go back to the drawing board and re-think your approach.

*These suggestions have been inspired from the Business Week article “Understand the importance of Diversity”.
*Examples where taken from the Vermont Department of Health

Category: EB perspectives

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