Diversity in the Workplace

The term diversity refers to all human characteristics that make people different from one another. These differences may be represented by visible characteristics, such as gender, race, ethnic background, and age. However, these differences may also be represented by nonvisible characteristics, such as education, functional background, organizational tenure, socioeconomic background, and personality.

Diversity in the workplace issue was triggered by reports published in the late 1980s indicating that the representation of women and ethnic minorities in the workforce would experience accelerated growth rates in the years ahead. Such changes in the demography of U.S. workforces implied that organizations would be required to change the ways in which people were managed. For example, as the White male demographic decreased in relative size, organizations desiring to attract and retain the highest-quality talent would have to recruit from all demographic categories. Further, because such workforce changes were emerging in an increasingly global economy and marketplace, organizations desiring to remain competitive would have to create strategies for addressing the needs and demands of potential customers from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Organizations also would have to contend with various legal and ethical issues that come with employing more diverse workforces.

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Consistent with predictions, the 21st-century workforce is typified by more women and employees with diverse ethnic backgrounds, varied lifestyles, and intergenerational differences than in the past. Such trends are projected to continue, as forecasts show that people entering the workforce in the next 20 years will be more diverse than in the current workforce. Current census projections for the year 2050 are that ethnic minorities will account for almost half of the U.S. population and will soon constitute the majority of new net entrants in the U.S. workforce, particularly because of continued high levels of immigration into the United States. In addition, experts predict that the representation of women and people with disabilities in the workforce as well as the average age of the workforce will increase.

The Consequences of Diversity in the Workplace

With the increasing focus on diversity in the workplace, there is a growing need for organizations to understand the effects of such diversity. Research generally suggests that diversity can influence employees’ attitudes, behavior, and career outcomes, as well as their abilities to interact with others and function effectively in work groups. However, these effects may be both positive and negative.

Diversity brings about differences in people’s backgrounds and experiences and, therefore, differences in perspectives on key issues or problems. Because diverse groups have a broader and richer base of experiences from which to approach a problem, they tend to produce a wider variety of ideas, alternatives, and solutions. In addition, the expression of alternative views in diverse groups may raise the quality of decision making by increasing the group’s attention to its decision-making processes. Diversity also increases the cognitive and informational resources available to the group, which enhances critical analysis in decision groups. Because of these different perspectives, diversity tends to result in more creative and higher-quality decisions. In addition, diversity lessens the likelihood of groupthink, or the absence of critical thinking caused in part by a group’s desire to maintain cohesiveness.

Although diverse groups tend to demonstrate better problem solving, the same diversity that provides for different perspectives may also result in process losses that can limit a group’s performance potential. Research shows that whereas similarity on demographic variables increases interpersonal attraction and liking, diversity lessens attraction and open communication between members. Because of lower social integration, members may be less attracted to, and feel less comfortable and satisfied with, the group. Further, diverse groups may be less cohesive and may have higher rates of absenteeism and turnover. Given the increased likelihood of misunderstandings and miscommunication among members of diverse groups, research also demonstrates that diversity is associated with higher levels of conflict. Groups composed of individuals with diverse types of skills, knowledge, abilities, and perspectives tend to experience greater task conflict, or disagreement about the content of the tasks being performed. In addition, differences in members’ level of attraction to, and identification with, the group may produce affective conflict, or interpersonal disagreements characterized by anger, distrust, frustration, or other negative attitudes.

Research has also highlighted certain conditions under which diversity is more likely to result in positive than in negative consequences. For example, groups are most likely to reap the benefits of diversity when they are engaged in complex tasks or in problem-solving and decision-making tasks. In addition, the benefits of diversity are likely to occur only after a diverse group has been together for a while. As members learn how to interact effectively with one another, the process losses suffered by heterogeneous groups diminish. Thus, members of diverse groups must successfully deal with the difficulties arising from diversity before they can reap the benefits. Alternatively, there may be some moderate level of diversity in groups at which barriers to communication and conflict have not fully surfaced and do not supersede the creativity and problem-solving benefits of diversity. The consequences of diversity also may be influenced by the type of diversity that exists in a group, as nonobservable characteristics produce very different effects on group process and performance than do observable attributes. For example, informational diversity, which is likely to arise as a function of differences in education, functional area, or tenure among group members, may stimulate task conflict, which facilitates more thorough analyses and improved decision making.

Diversity in the workplace can be both a liability and an asset. Although the negative effects of diversity may combine to make decision-making more difficult and time-consuming, diverse characteristics and backgrounds may foster higher-quality problem solving, decision making, and performance. Thus, the challenge for organizations is to manage in such a way as to maximize the potential benefits of diversity while minimizing the potential disadvantages.

Managing Diversity in the Workplace

The concept of managing diversity refers to efforts by organizations to actively recruit, motivate, retain, and facilitate working relationships among individuals who are demographically different and from a variety of backgrounds. Managing diversity means establishing a heterogeneous workforce to perform to its potential in an equitable work environment where no member or group of members has an advantage or disadvantage. As such, managing diversity differs from affirmative action, which refers to actions taken to overcome the effects of past or present practices, policies, or other barriers to equal employment opportunity. Affirmative action gives managers the opportunity to correct imbalances, injustices, and past mistakes. However, after such inequities are corrected, the long-term challenge becomes to create a work environment that respects and includes differences, recognizing the unique contributions that individuals with many types of differences can make, and that maximizes the potential of all employees and allows them to compete for organizational rewards based on merit.

Diversity Paradigms

Organizations differ in their approaches to diversity management. Some manage diversity with a focus on equal opportunity and fair treatment. Based on an assumption that prejudice has kept members of certain demographic groups out of organizations, this approach is intended to restructure the composition of an organizational workforce to let it more closely reflect the composition of society. Focusing on members of historically disadvantaged groups, this approach concentrates on compliance with federal mandates stemming from equal employment opportunity legislation and affirmative action policies. In addition, organizations following this approach often institute programs to increase the representation of women and ethnic minorities in their workforces and to retain members of these groups in the organization.

Some organizations manage diversity with a focus on access to, and legitimacy in, diverse markets. Under this paradigm, workforce diversity is viewed as a business opportunity. Differences are accepted and valued because they generate a broader range of multicultural competencies and multilingual skills that allow organizations to better understand and serve the needs of customers. As markets become more diverse and minority groups gain purchasing power, organizations also attempt to match the demographics of the workforce with those of customer or constituent groups to gain credibility with such groups. Because differences are believed to enhance an organization’s ability to understand and serve its customers, organizations following this approach will institute initiatives to promote and value diversity in the interest of serving niche markets and increasing their market share.

Rather than focus on diversifying workforce composition, some organizations attempt to incorporate employees’ perspectives into business processes to leverage the benefits of diversity for organizational effectiveness. This approach incorporates elements of the fairness approach, in that legal compliance is monitored, although methods of compliance beyond those mandated by law are undertaken. This approach also focuses on gaining access to, and legitimacy among, diverse customer groups, although an understanding of such groups is viewed as a learning rather than business opportunity. A learning approach differs from the other approaches in that similarities and differences among employees are seen as meaningful dimensions of diversity that create both potential advantages and disadvantages and have both short-term and long-term consequences. Diversity provides opportunities for employee perspectives to be incorporated in organizational strategy and processes, with the goal of achieving various strategic objectives, such as efficiency, innovation, social responsibility, or customer satisfaction. Thus, organizations following this approach attempt to link diversity to organizational growth and effectiveness.

Diversity Practices

In response to the changing demographics of the workforce, as well as increased competition, organizations have instituted a variety of programs and practices designed to capitalize on the positive consequences of diversity while minimizing its negative consequences. Many organizations use training and education initiatives to meet the needs and challenges of a more diverse and changing workforce. Such initiatives are considered important for generating sensitivity and awareness for differences in the workplace, imparting an organization’s value for diversity to its members, and providing employees with skills and competencies for operating in multicultural environments. Because diversity training is typically used as one of the first measures to introduce the concept of diversity within the organization, it has traditionally been viewed as the key diversity initiative.

The changing demographics of new entrants to the workforce now demand that organizations reconsider their recruitment strategies to understand how to best compete for and attract potential employees. To recruit and retain a more diverse labor force into critical roles, organizations have focused on the image they project to potential job seekers as well as the ways in which they interact with job applicants. Organizations are attempting to diversify their recruitment staffs, as recruiter diversity has been shown to enhance an organization’s image as an equal opportunity employer that is committed to diversifying its workforce. Recruitment advertisements are also an important tool in recruiting for diversity, especially given that minority job seekers are more likely to use formal sources of job information and recruitment than are nonminority job seekers. Diverse advertisements are increasingly appearing in mainstream media outlets as well as outlets targeted to specific groups and on the Internet.

Because prejudices and biases that exist outside organizations spill over into workplaces and interfere with the ability of diverse employees to form developmental relationships, organizations have focused on strategies for ensuring that all employees have an equal opportunity to develop their careers. Further, given barriers to the representation of minorities at all levels of organizations and to their participation in social networks, many organizations have also instituted programs to help these individuals to gain both the instrumental and social support resources needed for career success. For example, organizations have instituted mentoring programs to bring together employees at different levels for the purpose of establishing relationships between junior employees and more senior employees, to develop the junior employees’ careers. Organizations have also established affinity or network groups, which are groups of similar employees established to facilitate the social and professional support and development of a specific group.

Valuing diversity requires making accommodations for the needs, values, beliefs, and lifestyles that characterize more diverse workforces. Many such accommodations may be required by law to ensure that individuals with disabilities have the opportunity to perform at the level of a comparable person without a disability. However, other key areas of accommodation are currently being made by organizations. Organizations have developed work-life policies and programs to address a broad spectrum of work and personal issues among employees and to help employees balance these responsibilities. For example, family-friendly initiatives, such as family leave and dependent care, are used to ease conflicts between employees’ commitments inside and outside of work. Similarly, flexible work arrangements, such as compressed workweeks, flextime, telecommuting, and job sharing, are used to meet employee needs for flexibility. Organizations also provide other types of resources and services to address employees’ diverse work and personal issues and to attract and retain a diverse workforce.


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