Diversity in the workplace
Value, Definitions, bias and stereo types
Since the introduction of mass transport by Thomas Cook in the late 19th century the people of the world have taken advantage of the opportunity to move about the globe and as a result our world has become a place of great diversity – a rich cultural tapestry that filters through all aspects of our lives. It has given us opportunities beyond imaging, increasing our view of the world around us and given us a sense of worldliness that prior generations did not have. It has also brought with it certain sets of problems where cultural, social and economic differences, for example, can lead to misunderstanding.
The world’s increasing globalization means more interaction among people from diverse cultures, beliefs, and backgrounds than ever before. People no longer live and work in an insular marketplace; they are now part of a worldwide economy with competition coming from nearly every continent. For this reason organisations should encourage diversity to become more creative and open to change.
Recognising social and cultural diversities and dealing with cross-cultural misunderstandings is an important issue. In our everyday lives, it is unlikely that we will deal only with people of similar nature, background and ideals as ourselves. We come into daily contact with many different people. They are our customers and our colleagues and we need to recognise and accept their right to their own beliefs and customs and, where practical, to make allowances for their differences and disabilities if we are to interact harmoniously with them.
We have learned to accept and indeed take on certain cultural aspects of the people with whom we have contact. This shows in the food we eat, the style of furniture and houses we buy as well as our choice of cars. There are cultural and national traits that we are all familiar with. For example, French people are known for fashion and food. Italians arguably make the best furniture and their architecture is world famous while German engineering is also world renowned. The Japanese are known for their innovation, the Swiss make great clocks and Belgians make the best chocolate! Our world has grown to be a place that embraces diversity.
What is cultural diversity?
In order to fully understand and appreciate the value of a socially diverse workforce we must first understand the meaning of the terms social and diverse in a work place context.
Social – Encarta gives a variety of meanings as follows;
- relating to society: relating to human society and how it is organised
- relating to interaction of people: relating to the way in which people in groups behave and interact
- living in a community: living or preferring to live as part of a community or colony rather than alone
- offering opportunity for interaction: allowing people to meet and interact with others in a friendly way
- relating to human welfare: relating to human welfare and the organised welfare services that a community provides
- of rank in society: relating to or considered appropriate to a rank in society, especially the upper classes
Diverse – Encarta gives a variety of meanings as follows;
- consisting of different things: made up of many differing parts
- differing from each other: very different or distinct from one another
- socially inclusive: composed of many ethnic, as well as socioeconomic and gender, groups
So the term ‘social’ means the way in which people relate to each other and the situations in which we feel most comfortable. The term ‘diverse’ relates to all the ways in which people are different from one another. Cultural differences can extend to;
- the way in which people of different cultures address each other
- what level of formality or informality makes them comfortable
- their customs and beliefs
- family structure and values
- work ethics
- non-verbal behaviour – in terms of eye contact, hand gestures and physical proximity.
- personal grooming such as dress code and hygiene issues
- contribution to the local community
Often diversity will also extend itself to the observance of special religious feasts or other celebratory days due to a persons customs, beliefs and values. These are all important issues and need to be considered when communicating within a diverse working environment.
Culture has many layers; what you see on the surface may only be a small part of the many differences below the surface sogeneralisations never address the whole story. There is no substitute for building personal relationships, sharing experiences and coming to know others more deeply over time. Culture is also in a constant state of change; as conditions change, cultural groups adapt in sometimes unpredictable ways and no cultural description can ever be put into words about a particular group. Categorising cultural groups in certain ways, for example “Italians think this way,” or “Buddhists behave like that”, is not practical and can lead to conflict. As we grow and develop as people, we learn about other cultures through direct contact with various cultural groups, information and perceptions from other people or through books, news, newspapers and other forms of mass media. These experiences may develop into assumptions about other cultures or about a particular cultural group. These assumptions may bias our perception of other cultures and so are known as cultural bias. Culturally biased assumptions can fall into two categories:
general assumptions about people who are not from your own background. For example, ‘They’re not like us’.
assumptions about a particular cultural group. For example, ‘Indians only eat curry’ or “The Dutch are all stubborn“
Both categories affect the quality of communication and may lead to inappropriate work practices. Culturally-biased assumptions result in perceptions that can impact on your objectivity when working with culturally diverse groups. The consequences are:
Stigma relates to a social disapproval of the personal characteristics or beliefs of cultural groups other than our own. Stigma is often based on ignorance, irrational or unfounded fears, mass hysteria, lack of education, or a lack of information about a particular person or group. For example, thirty years ago being a single mother generated a stigma. The AIDS virus brought about a stigma to the gay community, while even today mental health problems can still carry a stigma.
Stereotyping relates to making assumptions about the characteristics of an individual, based on a generally held view of the person’s cultural background. People will often use stereotypes to describe a particular cultural group. For example “All French people are rude and discourteous” or “Germans are arrogant“. While individuals within these nationalities may indeed be rude, discourteous or arrogant, this is also true of individuals of any nation, not whole nations in general. The term is often used with a negative connotation, as stereotypes can be used to deny individuals respect or legitimacy based on their membership in a particular group. Stereotypes often form the basis of prejudiceand are usually used to explain real or imaginary differences due to race, gender, religion, age, weight, ethnicity, socio-economic class, disability, and occupation.
Discrimination in a cultural context refers to showing prejudice towards a certain group. Most of the time, discrimination involves the unfair labeling and treatment of others and is based on both stigma and stereotyping.
These three consequences are the most common; you could no doubt add others to the list. Within a workplace these negative consequences may lead to:
- resentment of clients and co-workers who come from different cultures. If a worker believed that all refugees or asylum seekers were ‘queue jumpers’, then the attitude toward a refugee client may be less compassionate than that of a worker who understands the trauma and grief experienced by refugees forced to flee their homeland.
- inadequate service to customers; where not enough information is gathered about their needs because of stereotypical beliefs about the client’s ability to understand or express their wishes or where the client’s behaviour is misinterpreted as normal or abnormal.
- failure to react appropriately to people in need. A distressing example of such a false assumption happened at a Brisbane bus stop in 2006. An Aboriginal university guest lecturer in a diabetic coma was ignored and left unattended for several hours by passengers and passers-by, who presumed that she may have been intoxicated.
While a person’s race should not be an issue it is an unfortunate fact that it often still is. During your working life you will most certainly be working with colleagues, or dealing with customers from other cultures. Therefore, it is a good idea to develop an understanding of their cultural background in order to work with them as effectively and harmoniously as possible. In some cases certain races (or nationalities) of people are perceived to have traits that seem to be present in many people of that particular race or nation. For example:
- Australian people are generally considered to be ‘laid back’ in their outlook and are able to cope with a variety of situations without being too offended. This can often lead to a lack of understanding when people of other cultures don’t react the same way. Australians often have a keen sense of fun and ‘mateship’ and prefer informality in their day to day dealings with others.
- American people also have a friendly, laid back outlook – although they are seen to be a little more conservative than Australians. Only around 10% of Americans have a passport. This makes them somewhat isolated in their outlook. At home, they are used to excellent standards of customer service. When travelling overseas they often expect American standards and services in other parts of the world and can be a little puzzled when they find this not to be the case.
- German people are seen to be very precise, orderly and to have a strong work ethic. For example, if you have told a German person that documents you are preparing for them will be ready to collect at a certain time, they will expect them to be ready at that precise time, and may not understand if they are not. This may cause them to act in what seems to be an abrupt and sometimes demanding manner. They are also very formal in their dealings with others. Unless they are known to you, or have initiated a less rigid approach themselves, a formal address is essential. German people who have known each other for many years continue to call each other by their formal titles – they will say ‘Good morning Mr Schmitt’ or ‘How is your mother doing Mrs Schultz?‘. Therefore they will not, generally, take kindly to being addressed by their first names by strangers or being overly familiar.
- Japanese people are also perceived as having a strong work ethic and a firm belief in order and structure. They are team oriented, have a strong sense of honour and are very aware of presenting the right image. In social situations they can easily be embarrassed by rude or discourteous behaviour and could then politely but firmly close their communications channels. They are also relatively formal in their dealings with other people. Where, in Australia, we believe that good communication skills mean maintaining eye contact – in Japan too much eye contact is considered to be staring and therefore rude.
Other traits can include the way in which some cultures deal with time. Some cultures take a very relaxed view of time and punctuality while others are not as flexible about issues of time management. This can often lead to conflicts where one person insists on being on time when another one does not take punctuality so seriously and often arrives late for work or meetings.
Different cultural groups can also have a major influence in the local community;
- in the many different foods available to us
- cultural festivals in the area
- music, and much more.
People from other races and cultures have a great deal to offer. By interacting with them in a positive way, and trying to understand them, we can learn about other countries and customs, we can broaden our own outlook on life and increase our personal ‘database’ of knowledge. Having said that you cannot know it all, so if in doubt polite and courteous behaviour is a universal language!
The value of cultural diversity
We have looked at some of the ways in which people differ. But why is this important?
The working life of most people, in today’s world, is one of constant contact with people from all walks of life and from all corners of the earth. We live in an era of enormous social diversity. If we do not recognise and accept the cultural differences between people we could create disharmony and distrust in the workforce. Furthermore we risk losing the opportunity for personal growth and the enhancement of the work team.
The value of diversity in business is enormous. It can improve the level of teamwork, performance and customer service through a broadened base of knowledge and experience. A culturally diverse workforce is creative and flexible. It exposes customers and colleagues to new ideas, different ways of working and reaching decisions. Learning from customers and colleagues from other backgrounds, also broadens our own personal horizons and expands our own knowledge base, making us more efficient and tolerant as individuals.
When employees come from diverse backgrounds, they bring individual talents and experiences with them. This invariably contributes to an organisation’s overall growth. Embracing employees with different skills and cultural viewpoints helps in understanding the needs and requirements of the customers, on a global scale. Diversity in workplace leads to a wide variety of viewpoints and business ideas. This helps an organization to formulate the best business strategy, with its large pool of different ideas and solutions.
So the advantages of diversity in the workplace can mean:
Creativity increases when people with different ways of solving difficult problems work together towards a common solution. There is no one best answer to any question–the more ideas you can obtain from different people, the more likely you are to develop a workable answer. Other cultures can offer insightful alternatives you might not have considered. This is a tremendous advantage of diversity in the workplace.
Productivity increases when people of all cultures pull together towards a single inspiring goal.
Language skills are obviously needed in today’s increasingly global economy–and diverse workers often have this proficiency. To truly build relationships with the other people of the world, it is an advantage to speak their language
Understanding how our country fits into the world pictureis crucial. By relating to people of all backgrounds, we will gain a greater perspective on how different cultures operate and experience greater success in both the community and in global business as a result.
New processes can result when people with different ideas come together and collaborate. In today’s fast-moving world, there is no longer room for thinking, “We have always done things this way and cannot change.” Workers must bring multiple skills to the environment, think cross culturally, and adapt quickly to new situations.
Workplace diversity can make organisations more productive and profitable. They also bring differences that we must understand and embrace for those benefits to be realised.
Adapting the work environment
People from culturally diverse backgrounds can bring enormous strengths to an organisation. Their talents, skills, expertise and relationships can increase staff confidence and improve client service. For this to occur, the organisation must ensure that work practices consider the needs of clients and employees from diverse backgrounds, and provide training and encouragement to staff. Culturally appropriate practices in working with people of diverse backgrounds may relate to the following:
- collection and provision of information in a way that is accessible to staff and customers of all backgrounds
- using communication methods that address the needs of a diverse workforce. This could include
- the use of Braille
- photos or diagrams rather than text explaining procedures
- translation of important staff / procedural manuals into other languages and more.
- equal employment and promotion opportunities
- provision of assistance for specific staff or customer needs
- provision of food services (where a canteen is available) that consider cultural or medical dietary requirements.
- workplace health and safety – ensuring appropriate induction and ongoing training occurs in a manner that addresses the needs of a diverse workforce. This might also include providing wheelchair ramps and access to bathroom facilities.
- Interpreter services, as the ability to speak and understand English may also affect a person’s ability to move within an organisation in regard to processes and promotion prospects.
Modifying work practice
At times work practices may need to be modified to ensure that you can engage with culturally diverse clients or co-workers effectively. To determine the requirements for culturally appropriate service, you will need to consult with others who have specific knowledge of the cultures that are represented within your workplace and its client base.
Cross cultural conflict
We all belong to cultural groups of one type or another. The group we belong to might be based on the country we were born in, the religion we belong to, our physical disabilities (i.e deafness), our economic position in the community or many other factors. When the cultural groups we belong to are in a large majority in our community, we are less likely to be aware of the day to day issues that surround us. Cultures shared by dominant groups often seem to be ‘natural,’ ‘normal’ or ‘the way things are done.’ We only notice the effect of ‘cultures’ on our community if they are very different from our.
When looking at why things go wrong between people of diverse backgrounds it is important to bear in mind the basics of human nature – that we all want to fulfil our own needs and desires in ways familiar to us and if this does not happen conflict is inevitable. Conflict develops because we are dealing with people’s lives, children, pride, self concept, ego and so on. Although inevitable, misunderstandings can be minimised and resolved by recognising the early indicators of conflict. But first we need to understand the reasons why conflicts can and do occur.
Recognising signs of cross cultural misunderstanding
In order to maintain a healthy and harmonious workplace it is important that we learn to recognise the signs of impending conflict and attempt to divert or resolve any issues before they become major issues. Conflicts and misunderstandings can occur when two people with different ideas believe they have the better view point. The issue can become one of ego or of gaining control. It can also happen when individuals or groups are not getting what they need or want and are looking out for their own self interest. Sometimes the individual is not aware of the need and unconsciously starts to act out. Other times, the individual is very aware of what he or she wants and actively works at achieving their goal. Whatever the scenario, the main component in conflict is misunderstanding. These misunderstandings can occur due to some of the issues we have previously discussed. For example:
- Race, Culture and Religion. Cultural influences and identities can be very important to people depending on the situation. When an aspect of cultural identity is threatened or misunderstood, it may become an issue of major conflict between cultural groups. This could lead to negative working conditions. In these cases it is helpful for the people in conflict to talk to each other calmly, perhaps with a mediator, to help them see each others point of view and to find ways to move forward in a positive way.
- Age. The ‘generation gap’ can cause conflicts between age groups; with older people believing that younger ones are irresponsible, and younger people believing that the older generation doesn’t understand them or what they are going through.
- Family structure. Migration to Australia has had an impact on family structures and the way people from other countries integrate into our communities. The family patterns change as each generation grows up. For example; first generation migrants will definitely bring with them the traditions and customs of their homelands whereas second generation migrants may have strayed from the old ways to a certain extent. By the time you reach the third generation the home country has become Australia and often the old traditions have been forgotten and could, potentially, lead to conflict within family groups or different generations in the workplace.
- Physical or mental disabilities. People who are deaf, blind, have chronic illnesses or condition have their own problems to deal with and can benefit very greatly from understanding on the part of work colleagues. People in these groups do not always ‘advertise’ their condition so it can be difficult to know why conflict is happening.
Resolving conflicts and misunderstandings
To resolve conflict it is necessary to work for the good of the group rather than individuals within it. This takes good communications skills (covered in chapter three). Steps to help resolve a conflict could include:
- Begin by establishing a rapport. You can do this by demonstrating a willingness to listen and by being honest and open about concerns.
- Set goals for resolving the conflict and plan for frequent communication until the issue has been settled to everyone’s satisfaction.
- Avoid jumping to conclusions. Be patient and let the other person have their say, without interrupting or imposing your own thoughts or ideas on them.
- Watch the other person’s body language. They may only be saying what they think you want to hear, but in reality don’t feel that way at all. Watching for non-verbal signals can give you a good indication of what they are actually thinking and feeling regardless of cultural background and language considerations. Equally, you should be aware of your own body language – making sure that you are sending positive signals. Always remember, the object here is to resolve the conflict and if you feel that some things are not being said you will need to draw them out. If you don’t know what’s wrong – how can you fix it?
- Discuss differences in opinion and/or culture openly and calmly and continually stress the importance of resolving the conflict and reaching an understanding.
- Make sure you keep only to the facts and don’t let emotions get in the way. Allowing emotions to surface can often breakdown the communications process, as tempers heat up and become agitated. Having said that, keep in mind that all people are different! All emotions and beliefs that a person has or feels are valid in their eyes. They have a reason for the way they feel. These reasons may not necessarily be good ones to your way of thinking, but to the other person – they are valid.
- Remain calm at all times. If the other person is emotional or aggressive then you need to demonstrate maturity and calmness to get the conversation back on track. Shouting or behaving in an aggressive manner will only make the situation worse.
- Avoid placing blame. During conflict resolution, determining who’s right or wrong or who’s at fault is not what you’re trying to do. A problem exists and what you are trying to do is to find a solution to the problem that will be satisfactory to all persons concerned. Finding someone to blame is not going to resolve the situation.
- Ask open questions, for example: ‘I understand that your primary concern is… but what else can you tell me?‘ Asking this type of question draws out any remaining issues that a person might have. Follow through with clarifying questions. For example: ‘So what you’re saying is that you are unhappy working in the accounts department and you would like to be transferred to administration.. is that right?‘ In this way you will get a full understanding of the issue(s) of concern.
- Check to see if anything has been left unsaid. Issues, even minor ones, that have not been dealt with, or that have not been resolved satisfactorily can fester and spring up again without warning. A situation that you thought was resolved – is therefore not! Ask questions to be sure. For example: ‘From what I have heard, I believe that the main issue of your concern is based on what we have just discussed. Having gone over this issue with you, how do you feel about the situation now?‘ In doing this, we check to make sure that the other person is satisfied with the resolution, or if there are still issues that need to be addressed.
- If necessary, bring in an interpreter or a neutral third party to ‘referee’ the discussion. This should ensure that the issue is talked out in a calm and civilised fashion. This third person could also point out areas where a compromise might be possible.
- At all times keep in mind that the end result of the discussion should be to establish (or re-establish) a harmonious working relationship.
- Show the other person courtesy and respect – allowing them to state their case without bias.
- Once again, what you are hoping to achieve is a working relationship that is directed toward the good of the whole – a working relationship that will create a happy and harmonious place in which to work and an atmosphere where customers will feel welcome.
- If everything you have tried fails you may need to try other methods to make communication possible. These might include;
- Non verbal language. Using sign language, gestures, showing or demonstrating what you are after.
- Colleagues who might be familiar with the customer’s language. You might have friends or relatives who can speak another language who can help out if you telephone them.
Outside organisations including:
- interpreter services
- diplomatic services
- local cultural organisations
- appropriate government agencies
- educational institutions
- disability advocacy groups.