Tackling Diversity in a Changing Organization

Organizations striving for a diverse workplace should work at diversity at every level of the organization. I hope to provide an in-depth look into the definition of diversity, the benefits of diversity in the workplace, challenges to achieving it, and the best way to manage the process in a changing organization.

Situational Analysis

In 2013 when my employer announced a new diversity initiative it was a welcomed change. “It was about time” was a similar sentiment shared throughout the company by many. We were ready to see more women and people of color represented in leadership positions throughout the company.

Also, in 2013 the board appointed a new CEO. In all regards an exciting time, everyone anxious to see what changes he would implement. I began my employment at X Jersey Gas as an General Administrative Assistant in 2011. At the time, the only African American employed at my location which I did not expect at all.  I expected a company that large would have a more diverse workforce in terms of race, age, gender, and people with disabilities. It seemed, the new CEO was committed to changing that, immediately rolling out a series of employee surveys assessing our need for incentives, updated technology, training, flexible hours, and diversity.

As a double minority, I especially wanted to see more women and people of color represented in the board room. The energy industry is a male dominated industry, particularly a white male dominated industry, and this organization is no exception. 22.4% of women are employed in the utility sector compared to 8.5% African American and 11.1% Hispanics (Catalyst Quick Take, 2016). The Senior Executive hierarchy at the time of the diversity announcement consisted of 7 white men and 1 African American woman. Notably, there were very few ethnicities in director or general manager positions.

However, instead of implementing diversity at every employee level the organization focused only on supplier diversity. Instead of hiring qualified women and minorities in top management positions throughout the organization, they awarded contracts to minority owned businesses outsourcing our mailroom, security, and janitorial services. It gave the appearance we were becoming more diverse, but not where it mattered most. Most of management and executives of the company are white men and filling the janitorial services and mailroom positions with minorities forced me to question the fairness of the organization’s diversity approach.

Diversity Defined

The notion of workplace diversity has become a priority for large corporations, particularly in the United States. Companies have aggressively positioned themselves in the marketplace as an employer promoting workplace diversity or supporting diverse communities. The emphasis on diversity has been ignited by globalization, a demand for service jobs, company branding, and in some cases a genuine business ethic.

Diversity in its context, accounts for the differences in race, age, gender, religion, capabilities, sexual orientation, class, or disabilities in an organization or a group where there is no discrimination based on these characteristics.  If an organization’s workforce consists of people with all the same characteristics, then you risk the chance that their attitudes, behavior, problem-solving, decision making, and approach towards business will be similar too.

Diversity, in an organizational context, refers to equality of opportunity and employment without any bias because of race, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, etc. At the time of the diversity announcement, the demographic of the top-management team led me to question if there was a bias with race and gender within the organization.  To support diverse organizational cultures organizations, need to focus on inclusion, recruitment and retention, managing resistance, and diversity training.

Benefits of Diversity

Organizational diversity is an effective way to mix things up and draw from new perspectives by recruiting employees that offer a wide range of skills, perspectives and problem-solving styles. It is also a useful tool for organizations committed to making some structural or cultural change.

Benefits of diversity include: Exposure to individuals with a vast range of talent, skills and experiences. Organizations can meet diversity standards by employing a board range of individuals that offer a selection of different talents, skills and experiences, that might benefit organizational performance. Diversity promotes innovation and creativity working alongside colleagues with different experiences, working styles, and backgrounds. This environment fosters an environment of innovation, members generate new ideas, offer feedback, suggestions, and support. It is vital to performance to rely on each other’s strengths and strengthen each other’s weaknesses.

Another benefit of diversity is breaking down language barriers that might exist between customers and staff. As an organization grows more and more diverse so does its customer-base. Widening your pool of employees helps breakdown language barriers and cultural differences you may experience expanding your business globally. When we surveyed the customers we serve, there was a large population of Hispanic customers that felt misrepresented because we did not have Spanish speaking representation in our call center. We had to commit ourselves to transform our customer service approach by recruiting Spanish speaking customer service agents to better serve our Hispanic customers. In this case diversity was necessary. We needed employees to reflect our customer- base. The same is true at the executive level, board level, and top management positions throughout X Jersey Gas.

Challenges Achieving Diversity

The most significant challenge achieving diversity is combating prejudice or negative cultural stereotypes that may exist in multicultural teams. Negative stereotypes impede integration, knowledge transfer, and inclusion and leaves members of the out-group feeling isolated.  This can be challenging if there are underlying misconceptions between cultures preventing them from collaborating successfully. Organizations working toward achieving diversity must address the ingrained cultural biases that exist. If we don’t admit to the discrepancy and truly assess the companies’ diversity needs, then we will never achieve proportional representation.

 Diversity is instrumental at breaking down language barriers with clients and employees, adversely it creates a challenge as well.  Communication among multicultural teams can get lost in translation. Cultures have verbal and nonverbal communication cues unique to their culture. There are challenges with communication even in offices where everyone speaks English. Accents, idioms, gestures, eye contact, and physical space are nuanced parts of intercultural communication that can lead to misunderstandings if not managed properly.

As stated above the integration process can be strenuous on an organization. Finding ways to be equally inclusive is strenuous and presents a challenge as well. It behooves organizations to consider ways to support a multicultural workforce. For instance, should an organization provide a quiet space for prayer for employees with a range of beliefs. Or add cultural or religious holidays to the company calendar for observation? Should they infuse cultural foods representative of employees in the cafeteria? Inclusivity is a balancing act but a necessary one.

Diversity alters the attitudes, values, behaviors, and etiquette of an organization bringing together colleagues from different cultures. Though this can be enriching to an organization it can also be very damning. For instance, there are different expectations of correctness, organizational hierarchy, and even working hours between cultures. Where an American employee might work extremely long hours, another employee from a different culture might value shorter work days with flexible hours.  Once you become a diverse organization you must account for the different approaches to conflict, decision-making, punctuality, and working styles.

Working styles are normally reflective of the cultural values and norms of the culture they exist in. Individualism vs. collectivism is a great example of this challenge. Some cultures like Asia embrace collectivism when working toward a goal. In contrast Americans tend to emphasis an individualistic approach to achieve goals. How would an organization mend the differences? Organizations must be flexible to different working styles.

The company surveys concluded the organization’s position on time and punctuality was not working for our current members and it presented a challenge with recruiting new diverse employees.  X Jersey Gas did a great job at taking those differences into account for our changing organization. Going from a very structured environment where punctuality matters most. Being seen leaving late and coming early was more favorable. Not using vacation was highly regarded. To an organization with flexible work schedules, summer hours, and work at home benefits for qualifying employees was a welcomed change for all.

Managing Diversity

To effectively manage diversity, organizations need to focus on recruitment and retention, inclusion, managing resistance, and diversity training. Learning to manage and recognize diversity, will not come easily or happen automatically for most organizations. The major requirement for this process is personal and professional change. Much like my organization, a true assessment of the current state of diversity is needed to create an action plan to support the efforts. Once the assessment is complete you can start the work with recruiting and retention.

Recruiting and retention is a significant aspect of creating a diverse workplace. First management needs to commit to the change and then empower HR teams to fill positions with a board range of talent that encompasses many different characteristics. A proper assessment will reveal whether diversity is necessary at the employee level, management level, or board level.  X Jersey gas has been able to recruit diverse employees at the employee level, but their executive and board level leadership share many similarities in terms of race, age gender, socioeconomic background, and education. We are falling short in this effort.

Shadowing other organizations that have been successful at championing diversity can be beneficial to the company during this process. Learning their approach to recruitment and how they search for candidates and the steps necessary to create a more inclusive environment will be a valuable resource for my organization.

With change comes different forms of resistance, it is inevitable. Even the most loyal employee may push back against changes they do not understand. Factors of uncertainty, lack of training, transparency cause resistance. Making changes all at once is never effective. Change in small doses is a much better approach to achieve diversity. One way to combat resistance is simply talking to your employees about the changes. Give as much information as possible without compromising company initiatives and let them provide feedback. A more interactive method is letting employees influence the changes with their own concepts, brainstorms and inspired approaches.

Provide your workforce with the proper resources and training to help push diversity initiatives through the organization from the bottom-up. One of the biggest gripes of change is being ill prepared for change. Provide sensitivity training, ethics training, equipment updates, and an open-door policy for complaints and difficult conflicts. The proper training is instrumental at combating resistance. Even if you are diverse, in terms of demographics, it’s necessary to train people to understand one another and the community they are serving. A good training program equips your staff with the proper tools needed to work together, come together, and utilize each other’s strengths.

Inclusion is a critical step in the process. Is it good enough to simply bring people together? Or is creating a sense of belonging essential to achieving diversity? When employees feel included and supported through organizational change, they are more likely to support the process and give appropriate input. Ultimately you reduce cynicism with inclusion. Although, their ideas may not be accepted every time, at least they have a seat at the table, and that makes all difference.

 Formally X Jersey Gas participates in several employee events designed to bring us together, such as, holiday parties, company BBQs, and social networking events scheduled throughout the year. However, I think the informal events at our respective divisions are more effective at fostering relationships, improving intercultural communication, and understanding cultural differences.

Much like my organization, despite the image presented by companies increasing diversity, the fact remains that many of the problems associated with diversity are apparently not going away. White men still hold high status jobs. Substantial pay gaps persist between men and women, white Americans and minorities, and socioeconomic classes. The reality is, the marketplace is changing, and demographics of organizations and their clients are changing to.  An organization striving for diversity must understand that inclusion is a priority. It is essential to promoting a comfortable and supportive environment encouraging members of all backgrounds to achieve their very best. Organizational diversity is equality in the workplace without bias toward race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or class. If a organizations fails to be inclusive it effects team morale and productivity.

Companies that embrace diversity initiatives attract a wider range of candidates to fill open positions. Applicants view the organization as a progressive workplace. Progressive organizations are very attractive to Millennials who value employer benefits much differently than older demographics. Diversity improves recruitment and retention, as people will be attracted to the organizational structure and culture. It is unfortunate my organization did not take this opportunity to make a real impact where it matters most.

References

George, J.M. & Jones, G.R. (2012).  Understanding and Managing Organizational Behavior: Sixth Edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Catalyst. Catalyst Quick Take: Women in Gas, Mining & Oil in Australia, Canada, & the U.S.. New York: Catalyst, 2016.

 

 

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