The next time you attend a meeting at work, take a look around the room. In what ways are those in the room similar? Chances are they are all part of the same workforce, having been hired to work for the same organization. They might work similar hours and work towards meeting the organization’s mission; they might also be from the same division or department. Dare we ask if everyone shares the same opinion about the issue under discussion?
On the other side of the coin, it seems only fair to identify differences among those in the room. Most likely, there are men and women, each from diverse races and cultures; some might have foreign accents. Everyone dresses differently; some wear glasses. Does anyone have a disability? It’s probably safe to say that people vary in their religious beliefs. Some people are straight while others might be gay or lesbian. Each probably has a different opinion about what should be done about the issue under discussion.
Not surprisingly, most people find it easier to identify the differences among people than to identify common characteristics or similarities. We are essentially the same; we are essentially different. And, at its most basic definition, diversity implies difference. It is not about right or wrong; diversity is just about difference. But, diversity is about more than race and gender.
Diversity is about differences in gender identity, self expression, national origin, culture, ability, disability, sexual orientation, religion, education and life experience, parental status, politics, leisure interests, socioeconomic status, and vocation. People also vary in how they perceive time, touch, gestures, and personal space.
We never have a second chance to make a first impression. As Director of Human Resources, Sally was the first to meet Bob and interview him for the Vice President of Marketing position. She took note of his razor sharp hairstyle, direct eye contact, erect posture, polite manners, immaculate clothing, and articulate comments. Based on first impressions, Sara perceived Bob to be a highly polished individual who was an expert in his field, an excellent fit for the organization’s culture.
By simply comparing others to our own experiences, likes and dislikes, we form first impressions. We decide quickly whether or not we accept those whom we meet. But, are our first impressions accurate?
Jorge spoke broken English. He worked the evening housekeeping shift at a hospital; Joan, the charge nurse, ignored him except when in need of someone to mop the floor or find linens. If she thought of Jorge, she perceived him to be uneducated and poor, with little aspiration for anything but menial work – a stereotype that she ascribed to most people in nonprofessional jobs at the hospital.
Stereotypes tend to be rigid generalizations of our observations, allowing for no individuality and often encouraging critical or negative judgment in all or nothing thinking.
When Jorge noticed that a patient’s ventilator plug was connected loosely to the wall socket, he notified Joan. In the first conversation the two had in the two years Jorge was on the job, Joan learned Jorge had been a healthcare attorney in Mexico but was unable to work as such in the United States until he fulfilled set requirements; he had five children and worked three jobs to support his family. After making that personal connection, Joan made sure to greet Jorge, ask about his family and share resources she thought he might find useful. A personal connection had been made. Additional information was gathered to shatter that first impression stereotype.
It is, of course, dangerous to base any decision on first impressions until they are vetted as true (or not). Similarities and differences — the workplace is full of them both.
“Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred of conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it,” states John Hume, leading figure of the civil rights movement in Ireland and co-recipient of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize.
Why are differences (aka, diversity) so important in the workplace?
The University of California at San Francisco found that heterogeneous groups of employees produced better solutions to problems with a higher level of critical analysis at a time when the campus was undergoing significant change to find more efficient ways to operate.
Recruiting from a pool of diverse candidates often results in a more competitive workforce, employing the best and brightest in the labor pool. In this global economy, where human resources are often the competitive advantage to improve the organization’s bottom line, a diverse workforce is key.
By employing a diverse workforce, an organization increases the likelihood that its labor pool more closely reflects its customer base. Diversifying the workforce can potentially increase an organization’s market share. This includes racial and ethnic minorities and people of varied sexual orientation. A McKinsey & Company study found that increased numbers of women in the workplace accounts for about 25% of current Gross Domestic Product.
Conversely, those businesses that fail to create inclusive work environments tend to see higher turnover rates than those organizations with a diverse workforce, according to Sophia Kerby and Crosby Burns, from the Center for American Progress.
In a 2011 study, Forbes surveyed 321 global businesses with at least $500 million in annual revenue. Eighty-five percent of those surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that diversity is crucial to stimulating innovation in the workplace.
“Evidence and facts show having a more diverse workforce leads to an increase in profits, improved efficiency, a drop in staff turnover, fewer sick days, more new ideas and improved morale,” says Cassidy-MacKenzie, CEO of EEO Trust in New Zealand.
As the global marketplace becomes smaller and more interconnected, it is important to tap into the strengths and differences each individual brings to the organization. Research shows that diversity is often a key element of entrepreneurism. According to the United States Census Bureau, people of color own 22.1 % and women own 28.8% of businesses in the United States; Latina owned businesses are the fastest growing segment of women owned businesses.
From the Center for American Progress, Burns, Barton and Kerby affirm those numbers, writing that “Businesses that embrace diversity also realize significant increases in workforce productivity and job performance.”
With this diverse workforce come diverse needs. Increasingly, managers overseeing diversity in the workplace turn to survey research to identify the needs of their diverse workforce and gather information about how those needs might be addressed. Surveys can also be used to assess the overall effectiveness of diversity initiatives in organizations.
Few organizations have the capacity to conduct such an assessment in house or cannot conduct it from in house because of a perceived or real conflict of interest. Expertise of an outside survey firm is invaluable, developing and implementing an array of questionnaires, including diversity surveys, organizational assessments, membership surveys, and/or surveys of new hires.
At the very least, information is gathered to examine the organizational structure, organizational culture, management styles, employee satisfaction, employee morale, employee engagement, efficiency with which tasks are accomplished and business outcomes.
Depending on the items used on the questionnaire, information can be gathered about stereotypes, prejudices, discrimination, and sanctions — real or perceived. Do people feel like an insider or outsider at work? That is, do people feel like they belong and are valued or ignored? What is the impact on the organization when these feelings exist? What will it take to convert an outsider to an insider? Survey items can probe to find out.
The Center for Legal Inclusiveness (CLI) is a nonprofit committed to increasing diversity in the legal profession. In September 2009 and January 2011, CLI’s Retention Working Group conducted two anonymous surveys to seek solutions about the retention and advancement of female and racially/ethnically diverse attorneys.
Over two-thirds of the associates indicated that their managing partner was visibly committed to diversity and inclusiveness and more than half stated they got high quality assignments; most reported the same opportunities to socialize with partners in their firm as white male attorneys. A large number of associates reported being impacted by the same kinds of hidden barriers documented in national research (e.g., lack of mentors, unfair evaluations, long work hours, lack of advancement opportunities). Surveys can be effective benchmarking tools and identifiers of best practices.
The National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communication and Women in Cable Telecommunications combined their diversity surveys into one in 2011.
Containing 83 quantitative and qualitative items, the survey was a census of companies in the cable telecommunications industry. The 25 companies responding to the survey represented 219,294 fulltime equivalent employees in the United States or about 54% of the industry workforce. Survey data were benchmarked against the telecommunications industry.
The top diversity practices employed by cable telecommunications organizations, included recruiting strategies to increase diversity in the workplace, aligning diversity with business goals and objectives, and using employee attitude surveys that included items related to organizational diversity. Opportunities like mentoring and coaching helped increase diverse representation in higher level positions. Community outreach was also tied to diversity and included links to educational institutions and municipalities.
The Regional Consortium for Multicultural Education sponsored the Campus Diversity Survey at College Misericordia, King’s College, Wilkes University, University of Scranton, and Marywood University. The purpose of the multi-campus survey of these Pennsylvania institutions of higher learning was to assess local college student attitudes, behaviors, and experiences about multiculturalism.
The five part questionnaire included demographic information and items about campus experiences and attitudes related to diversity. Additional items were asked of those students who were members of a particular multicultural group to determine the nature of the student experience with that group on campus.
Students were asked if they had ever felt discriminated against or harassed (even subtly), why, in what form, and where. Students were asked to identify their comfort level in being close friends with a list of diverse groups or individuals (e.g., individuals with HIV/AIDS, White). Students were also asked to indicate the degree to which the college addressed campus issues related to ageism, disability, race, religious beliefs, gender and sexual orientation.
The survey ended with items that solicited student ideas on how to improve the campus environment towards diversity and elicited student feedback on how satisfied they were with multiculturalism at the college.
As new grads become new hires, the challenge is to ensure that new employees from different backgrounds feel connected to the business culture and operation. New hire or onboarding surveys conducted within the first 60-90 days can quickly identify potential problem areas. What challenges do new hires face in trying to do their jobs? What is working and what is not? What additional measures must be put into place to support this diverse workforce?
Survey items can reflect new hire perceptions related to the recruitment and onboarding process, training, welcome from co-workers and barriers. New hire surveys can also measure the expectations new hires had as compared to the reality of their new jobs. Armed with survey results, managers can take steps to address issues early on to retain these diverse employees.
Each organization, regardless of industry, has multiple stakeholders with stereotypes, diverse needs, and expectations. While assumptions can magnify differences, they need not negatively impact the organization. Managing diversity at work means that managers acknowledge people’s differences and recognize them as valuable.
Once we understand that different does not mean ‘less than’ it is easier to respect existing differences and capitalize on them to create an inclusive environment in which to work.
NBRI can help you gather information from stakeholders to identify issues related to all aspects of diversity in your organization; we can also work with you to identify strategies for managing diversity. Contact us now at 800-756-6168.
Terrie Nolinske, Ph.D.
National Business Research Institute