Article (August-2017)


Diversity in the workplace

Dr. Anupriyo Mallick

Designation : -   Associate Professor and Head HR and OB

Organization : -  Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning In Management (EIILM), Kolkata


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Since the 1960s, the idea of a monoculture has been losing out to a pluralistic society resulting from cultural integration. Globalisation has shrunk boundaries and increased the rapidity of communication. The changes wrought as a result are evident in every aspect of lifestyle, be it fashion trends, eating habits, entertainment or recreation. Indeed, diversity adds spice to life.

Management gurus regard diversity in an organisation as a good thing because it encourages teamwork among employees. Diversity in an organisation occurs when the organisation hires people from different backgrounds and when the demographics vary considerably with differences in age, sex, culture and physical capabilities.

Organizing such a mixed bag of human resource into a cohesive work force is a tough managerial task. For one, cultural ethnicity issues need to be handled with care and sensitivity. People from different parts of the world need to come together for various operations. With such a diverse pool of resource and talent, maintaining equality is a Herculean task.

In this milieu, it becomes the responsibility of the organisation to subtly coach its employees to accept the changes around them. Informal get-togethers help employees build up a rapport outside the office, which would also aid organizational goals.

Progressive companies all over the world recognise the advantages of integrating a culturally disparate workforce. In today's global marketplace where companies are constantly interacting with clients from all walks of life such diversity is a definite advantage for an organisation.

So, contrary to the earlier ethnic - centric business outlook, where orientation and operations were marshalled from the parent company, modern multinationals have incorporated geocentric orientation into their organisation.

The entire organisation is viewed as an independent system operating from different locations. All relationships between headquarters and the subsidiaries are collaborative, encouraging communication from both directions and at all levels. Furthermore, managers of different nationals occupy key positions.

MNCs have recognised the business opportunities in many different countries. Moreover, multinational firms benefit by being able to establish production facilities in countries where their products can be manufactured more effectively and efficiently. Companies with worldwide operations sometimes have access to natural resources and materials that may be available to domestic firms only. Then there is the advantage of recruiting management professionals from a global talent pool.

The pros of diversity can be categorized thus:

Increased creativity: When different people work towards a common goal, there is no dearth of ideas that are thrown up. Coming from diverse backgrounds, employees can offer insightful alternatives to a problem.

Increased productivity: Diversity in workforce kills monotony and brings certain freshness to the work atmosphere. Every employee motivates the other with his/her different style of working.

Better negotiation skills: Every culture has its own philosophy on negotiation. Americans hate it, they rarely, if ever negotiate. But when they have to work with people of different cultural they realise the art of negotiation, which it should be a win - for - all situation and so on. Diversity fosters such learning.

New business processes: With a disparate workforce, companies need to adopt newer business skills and processes. A cross - cultural workforce improves these.

New language skills: Diversity can improve employees' linguistic skills, thus breaking down barriers of language and communication. Not only that but the colossal sums spent on hiring interpreters can also be reduced. Learning new languages gives employees an insight into other cultures. 

However, there are conflicting opinions on diversity. For instance, Prof Stephen Bainbridge of the University Of Illinois Law School argues that homogeneity should be maintained at the workplace as it increases productivity and profitability.
People feel at home while working with like - minded people, therefore, they work more effectively. He recognises that some people may have problems communicating their ideas and emotions to people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. In his opinion, it is a waste of time and energy to encourage a diverse workforce.
On the other hand, Prof Ron Burn, a Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the Chicago Graduate School of Business, is of the opinion that diverse workgroups are more innovative as they not only bring in variety in experience but they are also connected to different sources of information in their environment.
Kent State University, located in the heartland of America, allows its students, faculty and staff to learn about different cultures. Dr Sheryl Smith, Associate Dean of students and Director of Campus Life, says that the university encourages students to explore, understand and appreciate different cultures through sponsored events.
The philosophy is simple: Students will have to work some day with people from different cultures and they will encounter differences. They should be at ease when they enter their professions.
In the same way, we need to address the myths; stereotypes and cultural differences that are part of our lives, give up obsolescence and improve productivity.
The reality of globalisation is that the boundaries of nations have shrunk, communication has assumed the speed of thought and the entire world has become a global village. It is important, therefore, that we respect, accept and, indeed, celebrate diversity.
Why should a successful organisation embrace diversity? Some will say discrimination  is wrong, illegal and immoral. Others will talk of the social need for inclusion. There is, however, a larger reason for organisations to embrace diversity. The paradigm through which the organization sees diversity is crucial and that will shape the organisation's diversity philosophy.
The most common diversity paradigm is the moral paradigm and rightly so. Discrimination is wrong, illegal and immoral. Next is the social need paradigm. India is growing at a rapid pace. India's diversity, too, is growing and is different from the western world and even from our neighbour China. So, our solutions to diversity must be different from the rest. Here, some organisations are going an extra step to ensure that unique needs of genders are identified and met. For instance, a new mother may want to work from home. However, the diversity scope (that is, beyond gender), speed and quantum need to be accelerated.
Finally, the competitive advantage paradigm. India is quite unique and there is a competitive rationale behind the cause of inclusion. India's growth is creating emerging diversity in the markets and to succeed in this reality, the organisation needs people from diverse groups to design, develop and market the solutions. In this paradigm, diversity is not about ratios; it is about recognising that women are different and bring in the famous "woman's perspective". According to Desmond Morris, "In olden days the perception was that men and women are unequal and different. Now, we have come to an era of men and women being same and equal. True benefits will come when we realise that we are equal and we recognise and leverage the differences". It is not about hiring a woman and then "encouraging" her to think and behave like a man. This is true for all diversity groups. In India, organisations must use all of the above paradigms to guide our diversity philosophy.
Pillars of Diversity
Pillar 1: Inclusion has to be a strategic focus of the top management As far as possible the organisation's diversity policy should be based on both the needs - that is, the social need and for competitive advantage. The organisation should state its diversity policy and broad objectives.
Pillar 2: Create committed teams and empower them. The organisation needs to create strategic teams to implement the diversity policy. Typical teams can be at three levels:
  • Strategic team comprising the top management. This team will work at the policy, communicate the intent, allocate resources, regularly measure and communicate the achievements and actively engage with operating teams.
  • Operating teams. Each operating teams will be organised by a representing group (for instance, gender, physically challenged etc.) and will have a defined structure, report to - and have the support of - the central strategic team. The team members must be empowered and reflect the geography and business units.
Both the teams must ask these three leadership questions about diversity:
  • What needs to be done to make the group feel welcome, valued and respected within the organisation? 
  • What can the organisation do with each group to maximise the group's value to the organisation?
  • What can the organisation do to influence this group's buying decisions and be seen as a preferred solution provider?
The operating teams will have to study the very unique concerns of their constituency. Some common concerns will be stereotyping, representation within key decision making levels, recruiting policies, promotion policies and support for special needs such as work - life balance for the new mothers, physical infrastructure for the physically challenged.
Pillar 3: Common understanding of the strategic intent. A clear future picture should be created between both the strategic and the operating teams. The long - term and medium - term road maps should be prepared and approved by the strategic team. It must clearly bring out the competitive advantage objectives of the group. For instance, "the share of women customers in the overall sales pie will increase from the current 6 per cent to 30 per cent in five years". Or, "we will develop appropriate solutions and will be seen as the preferred solutions provider for the physically challenged group in three years". Or, "over 50 per cent of the locations will have local leaders in five years", and so on.
Pillar 4: Both the teams must constantly communicate and maintain buy-in from employees and other stakeholders.
Pillar 5: The implementation pillar. This will involve day - to - day implementation strategies on recruiting and sensitivity trainings for all staff, fair promotions and retention policies, empowerment, and a structure to manage differences as they arise. The demonstration of commitment is the key. This pillar should institutionalise acceptance and respect for all.
Pillar 6: Measurement. It is important to measure the success in both numbers and the feelings. Measurements like diversity ratios, competitive advantage objectives etc should be analysed, presented logically to appeal to required behaviour changes. It is also important to know how the stakeholders feel about the initiative. 'Feelings surveys' need to be carried out from time to time. Audits, exit interviews, surveys, polls etc must be part of the process. It must be an independent activity carried out by people not involved in the process.
Pillar 7: Feedback and course correction. This is a long - term initiative and giving feedback should be simple. The process of feedback and course correction demonstrates the management's commitment to diversity and encourages employee engagement.