Diversity is defined as the condition of being different. Such differences
may be described in terms of age, race, gender, cultural background, and
physical or mental deviations from the norm.
As our world becomes steadily smaller, through advancements in transportation and communication, the need for dealing with diversity becomes more important. In the U.S., our rapidly changing population is producing both new labor and new customer bases. We are inching away from a workforce dominated by white males to a more diverse workforce, which includes increasing percentages of women and minorities. For example, in 1993, 47% of the managerial and professional workers were men, 42% were women, 7% were blacks and 4% were Hispanics. The percentage of white men will continue to decrease over time as the others increase.
Why diversity? This trend is driven by efforts to (1) redress historical patterns of discrimination, (2) comply with equal opportunity mandates, (3) develop a more competent workforce, and (4) fulfill the variety of customer needs and desires generated by a diverse U.S. market and the growing global market.
The way in which firms handle diversity can significantly affect their performance. Diversity is natural, and the integration between two or more diverse perspectives (such as gender or race) can strengthen the company based upon the combination. However, when conformity to one perspective is demanded, low morale and low productivity can result, and diversity will be perceived as a problem. Leaders in our technological and fast-paced society face many difficulties, especially if they assume that everyone shares their perceptions. This is a particularly acute problem for the white male manager who has never given it much thought.
Creating a diverse culture. Companies should strive to create a culture that enables all employees to contribute their full potential to its success. As such, diversity encompasses much more than affirmative action. Companies should value and seek out a diversity of ideas. They should choose the best qualified person for each job, regardless of race, gender, or age. Treated in this fashion, diversity can serve as a competitive weapon that helps the company derive the most from its human resource pool and best compete in the global marketplace.
Currently, diversity is more of a problem for large firms. However, in today's rapidly changing environment, which includes re-engineering, the introduction of change, cross-functional teams, and downsizing, the manner in which diversity is handled can prove to be an opportunity for a firm to improve, or a source of more problems. It is especially important when developing a diverse workforce to avoid alienating both the white males, whose support is critical, and the women and minorities, who may resent any special attention being paid to the white males.
In any case, the transition from a corporate culture now dominated by white men to one that includes all employees equally will not be easy, but most firms will have no choice, if they expect to prosper in the global environment.
Ask the Manager
Q: I can easily characterize others, especially their weaknesses. For example, Joe, a nice guy, talks too much and does not listen to others. Tom follows the "rules" to the letter, even when he knows that it may not be best for the firm. I am sure I have weaknesses, but I find it difficult to identify them. Any suggestions?
A:We all carry around attitudes and assumptions which are difficult for us to identify or change and yet they keep us from effective two-way communication, which can, in turn, hinder our performance. I suspect before we can identify our weaknesses, we must admit that we even have some, sort of like an alcoholic who must admit to having a drinking problem before learning to deal with it. Next comes data gathering. Introspection can help here. Reviewing why you made certain decisions could help, as well. Review why certain situations didn't turn out the way you hoped they would. It is usually a good idea to seek input from others who know you and you feel you can trust-your spouse or a close friend. Ideally, your manager can do this in an effective performance evaluation. A detailed log might help you recall situations that should be reviewed, as well as give you input on where you place your priorities. Try to get several perspectives in order to create a realistic characterization of yourself. Next, you should take some action. Decide what you want to change, and then document your action plan so you can periodically review and update it. Tell others what actions you plan to take. It is easier to stick to your plan when you have something in writing and you have told others about it. As a start, you might try eliminating some of your blind spots and be honest with yourself. Obviously, this is not a one-cycle process. You should gather new data, make new plans, and carry them out on a regular basis.