We live in a civilization rife with apparent differences between and among our people. We come from every place on the planet. If we don’t speak a range of languages, our ancestors did. We celebrate different holidays, worship at different altars – or don’t worship at all. We are different colors and love different people. We are even a range of genders where, historically, we only acknowledged two. Businesses are awakening to the value of reflecting those differences in the workplace.
It makes sense to begin by defining what we mean by diversity. Let us say a diverse workplace is one which is made up of individuals from various races, ethnicities, ages, religions, gender and sexual orientations.
There are many advantages of having a diverse workforce: diverse employees bring a broad range of experience to every task, providing multiple perspectives. Innovation often results from the contribution of different voices to an issue. Diverse groups will bring differing methods of working and cooperating which may challenge other employees to leave their comfort zones.
People with substantially different backgrounds may drive creativity by providing an entirely different perspective on any given issue. If you bring to the table a range of experience you may find solutions which would not otherwise appear.
People of different ethnic backgrounds bring a whole range of cultural experience which can inform and alter your perception of the world. When these diverse people merge as a team all of its members learn valuable lessons in cultural sensitivity.
If your customer base is diverse, then your workforce had better be as well. It will enhance your reputation among your customers and provide you with better and more effective ways to reach the people who may buy your goods and services. If your employees are comfortable with a people different from themselves, they will be better equipped to engage with customers of different backgrounds and outlooks.
Different ethnicities may bring the valuable asset of fluency in another language, a potentially huge benefit to your business. Having languages other than English available can open doors for your business with new communities. And that may not only apply to the people who speak the employee’s language – it may also apply to others who see the addition of another cultural influence as a signal that your business is actively reaching out to broader population.
There is substantial research which suggests that diversity in the workforce may lead to increased productivity.
We tend to discount the advantages of having a range of ages in the employee base but I am reminded of client businesses where the founder and employees are all of the same generation and the resulting lack of different perspectives that result from the age homogeneity. On one end of the spectrum you see organizations run and manned by 20-somethings who have enormous energy and creativity but lack experience and may spend a great deal of time reinventing the proverbial wheel. At the other end are companies who have leadership and a workforce with long experience and tenure, but who may lack youthful creative energy and tend to rely on time-tested techniques even when they are no longer working.
When you make the decision to diversify your workforce, remember that the addition of a single individual may not have the desired effect. You will need to include diverse employees at all levels to effectively change the culture of your company. However, you are likely to be filling one or two jobs at a time (not overhauling the entire workforce) so make a comprehensive plan for future hires so that you don’t end up with the situation I have often seen: office employees are all from the majority population and the lower level workers are all from one minority group.
Then you have to effectively manage the diversity – no easy task! Obviously, the workplace must be free of discrimination: from your leadership and between employees. You will need to do some training – how much depends on your particular employees. You must “legislate” absolute acceptance at all levels and the failure to comply should be draconian. If the guy in the warehouse or the receptionist creates a problem they need to understand the outcome will be the loss of their jobs. I don’t care if they are your sister’s children, they don’t get a pass on this one.
The change from a homogenous to a diverse workplace may cause stress among employees and will need to be carefully managed to avoid have a fractured situation.
You may find that communication is not as easy as it had been with employees who all came from similar backgrounds. Everyone will need to be sensitive to differing methods of expressing yourself and work to ensure that everyone understands. You may want to investigate diversity training for your staff and employees either in the form of seminars, consultants, or online classes. Whatever you choose, there needs to be follow up and monitoring of the work environment by you and all of your employees.