As American demographics continue to reflect increasing numbers of women and minorities in the workforce, organizations that want the most productive employees have to put aside old definitions of ‘corporate fit’ and employ more people of different colors and cultures, who are different from the ‘norm’ in age, appearance, physical ability and lifestyle. Most importantly, they have to develop and retain them.
Diversity is among the most serious issues in the workplace today, yet most employers are not prepared to deal with it. Nor are their managers. Many managers grew up having little contact with other cultures. They are actually ‘culturally deprived,’ and their academic training did not cover the kinds of situations that arise in today’s multicultural settings.
Most traditional models of human behavior and management methods – as well as many of the recommendations in bestsellers such as The One-Minute Manager and In Search of Excellence – are based on implicit assumptions of a homogeneous white male workforce. The most widely taught theories of motivation mirror the white male’s own experience and attitudes. Some of those methods can be startlingly counterproductive when applied to women, Asians, Hispanics, African Americans or American Indians. For example:
A manager, thrilled with a new technique developed by one of his American Indian employees, rewarded her with great fanfare and congratulations in front of her peers – just as the management books suggest. Humiliated, she didn’t return to work for three weeks.
After learning that a friendly pat on the arm or back would make workers feel good and motivated, a manager took every chance to pat his subordinates. His Asian employees, who were uncomfortable being touched, avoided him like the plague. Several asked for transfers. (If he had treated female employees this way, he could have had other problems on his hands.)
Concerned about ethics, a manager declined a gift offered him by a new employee, an immigrant who wanted to show gratitude for her job. He explained the company’s policy about gifts. She was so insulted she quit.
In a similar situation, a new employee’s wife (an Eastern European) stopped by the office with a bottle of champagne, fully expecting everyone present to stop and celebrate the new job. When people said "hello" and returned to work, she was mortified. Her husband quit within a few days.
Some organizations have taken aggressive steps to meet these demographic challenges, appointing specialists to manage multicultural planning and workforce diversity. "It’s absolutely clear that we have to manage diversity right now and much more so in the future," says David Kearns, former president and CEO of Xerox Corp. "American business will not be able to survive if we do not have a large diverse workforce, because those are the demographics. The company that gets out in front of managing diversity will have a competitive edge."
What Managers Need to Know
If managers are to be trained to value diversity – to go beyond offering equal employment opportunity and manage in a way designed to employ the benefits that differences bring – what do they actually need to learn, and what barriers must they overcome?
EEO and human resources development professionals agree on four major problem areas that need attention: 1) stereotypes and their associated assumptions; 2) actual cultural differences; 3) the exclusivity of the "white male club" and its associated access to important information and relationships; and 4) unwritten rules and double standards for success, which are often unknown to women and minorities.
Stereotypes and assumptions. Some experts say stereotypes are not necessarily bad – it’s what we do with them. I disagree. Stereotypes are bad because they are so powerfully effective in preventing differentiated thinking about people who belong to the stereotyped group. As defined by Gordon Allport in his classic book, The Nature of Prejudice, "A stereotype is an exaggerated belief associated with a category. Its function is to justify (rationalize) our conduct in relation to that category."
Stereotypes hurt individuals when invalid conclusions are reached about them, and when those conclusions remain untested and unchanged. Take this scenario: A white male manager walks through the office, passing two black men talking at the water cooler. He is slightly irritated. Why are they standing there wasting time? A moment later he passes two women coming out of the ladies’ room talking. He wonders what they are gossiping about and hopes they get back to work quickly. He comes upon two white men leaning on the walls of a cubicle, also talking. He thinks nothing of it.
What are his assumptions? The women and minorities are ‘goofing off,’ but the white men are talking business. Since he hasn’t really listened to the conversations, he doesn’t realize that the women and the black men were talking business while the white men happened to be talking about their children. Instead, his misinterpretation of what he saw will only strengthen his bias that women and minorities don’t work hard enough.
Even when an individual seems to fit a stereotype, it’s important to analyze all the assumptions that are being made. For example, take an Asian engineer who is quiet, modest and hard-working. Because he avoids eye contact and doesn’t speak out in brainstorming sessions, his boss concludes that he’s a good technician but lacks management skills when evaluating him for a promotion.
It’s entirely possible that the white manager fails to realize that the Asian has successfully (if indirectly) led many of his team’s projects for some time. He could be coached in areas where he is lacking, as a white candidate would be.
And what about the criteria the boss is using to define ‘management skills?’ Is aggression really needed, or might intelligence, persistence and the ability to foster group collaboration be equally or more effective in getting to the same goal? Managing a diverse workforce requires managers to learn new ways to recognize talent. This means laying aside some assumptions and looking beyond style to the actual results.
Cultural differences. These affect the values that people bring to the workplace. Different people feel differently about their roles in an organization, how they can make a contribution and how they want to be recognized for their efforts.
What motivates one worker might completely inhibit another – for example, rewarding people who don’t like to be touched with pats on the back, or publicly recognizing people who don’t like to be isolated from the group. Workers unintentionally humiliated in this manner may become less productive. Then, typically, the manager who made the mistake will fall back on stereotypes to explain an employee’s disappointing behavior: "Well, what can you expect, Hispanics are like that."
In some multicultural workplaces, many diverse people work side by side: Cambodians, Chinese, Koreans, Mexicans, Peruvians and so on. Managers in these mixed settings may ask, with some panic, "How can I possibly learn everything there is to know about all cultures?" But the more you know, the better able you will be to do your job. If you don’t understand and value your employees, how can you hope to motivate and supervise them?
Membership. Relationships are central to achievement, and being a member of the ‘club’ is as important as hard work and competence. When a white man and a woman (or minority) are competing for a promotion, the decision-maker may be heard to say, "I just don’t know Mary as well as Bob." People in the mainstream fail to include those who are different, and thus exclude them from important information and relationships.
Women and minorities complain that they must prove themselves, while white men automatically assume membership in the club. They are kept in training too long, given just one more assignment, one more test. White men are given promotional opportunities sooner under the assumption that they will rise to the occasion. The catch-22 is that when people are not given challenging assignments, they never have the chance to learn by experience or to develop the track record that will reduce others’ feelings of risk about them.
Managers impede their own people this way. They need to make deliberate efforts to include people in work-related and social events. Managing a diverse workforce requires conscious team building, networking and mentoring.
Unwritten rules. Each organization has its own culture, and that culture reflects attitudes about what is important, how the organization does its work, how employees are to behave, and how they are rewarded. In most companies, the values are male, white and based in European traditions, not because these ways are better than others, but because the organization reflects the values of the people who control it. It is important for all employees to know what those values are because they define the ground rules for success.
In some organizations, many of the rules are explicit, even written. In most, however, the rules are ambiguous, unwritten and may be completely inconsistent with written policy.
Because so many white male managers are only subconsciously aware of the rules and double standards, they need to learn to identify their organization’s culture and rules, and pass on that information to women and minorities. This means providing all employees with what they need to know about career advancement, communication, leadership, management, organizational culture, power, networking, interpersonal skills, and all the other unwritten rules, norms, and cues for success.
A Two-Way Street
Many people expect women, minorities and others outside the mainstream to do all the adapting. But it has to be a two-way street. While women and minorities must perform, build relationships, learn the rules and work to become members of the club, managers must share the rules, invite people into the club, accommodate cultural differences, create climates that support diversity, and establish systems that enable different types of employees to succeed.
Plenty of companies have given lip service to the idea of managing a diverse workforce, but end up with few changes because they have failed to establish accountability. Kearns insists that making sure you have the right balance in your workforce at all levels "is something you have to measure and you have to target just like you do profits or market share."