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. However, diversity also includes our differences such as 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 a “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; across the oceans; or across the globe (and language differences are introduced), 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).
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 merely 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 or accounting or operations department regarded and respected in the same manner as the viewpoints and opinions of leaders in the HR or IT departments? Are employees in every department even invited to participate in key decision making discussions? Involving those with different viewpoints can help to 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).
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 challenge of building confidence and trust and managing a diverse team a difficult task to accomplish.
Hiring, developing, promoting, rewarding employees based 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 the diversity initiative by investing the time and effort to identify, invite, and include those with different backgrounds into the organization.
More information on Workplace Diversity and its effect on team productivity and business operations can be found in :
Corporate Leadership Selection: Impact on American Business, Employees, and Society.Input and feedback to this blog is always welcome.
Cook, A., & Glass, C. (2009). Between a rock and a hard place: managing diversity in a shareholder society. Human Resource Management Journal, 19(4), 393-412. doi:10.1111/j.1748-8583.2009.00100.x.
Lockwood, N. (2005). Workplace Diversity is Leveraging 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. Doi: 10.1080/09585190802670516.
Tetteh, V. (2008). Diversity in the Workplace. Research Strategies Business. P. 1-15.
Workplace Diversity (2010). Cornell University Library. Retrieved December 1, 2010 from www.ilr.cornell.edu/library/research/subjectguides/workplacediversity.html