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.

Dictionary definitions:

Social – Encarta gives a variety of meanings as follows;

  1. relating to society: relating to human society and how it is organised
  2. relating to interaction of people: relating to the way in which people in groups behave and interact
  3. living in a community: living or preferring to live as part of a community or colony rather than alone
  4. offering opportunity for interaction: allowing people to meet and interact with others in a friendly way
  5. relating to human welfare: relating to human welfare and the organised welfare services that a community provides
  6. 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;

  1. consisting of different things: made up of many differing parts
  2. differing from each other: very different or distinct from one another
  3. 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;

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.

Cultural Bias

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:

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:

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;

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:

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:

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:

Outside organisations including:

  1. interpreter services
  2. diplomatic services
  3. local cultural organisations
  4. appropriate government agencies
  5. educational institutions
  6. disability advocacy groups.

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