In the 21st century, the importance of diversity in the workplace cannot be overstated. A firm’s survival and growth may depend on it, and a culture that honors and acknowledges it can capitalize on the best efforts of individuals. An understanding of the benefits of valuing and supporting diversity can lead to a rewarding and safe work environment for all employees. The range of social interactions in the workplace can be large and complex, and the differences between employees from all walks of life, with their varied perceptions, attitudes, values and beliefs, need be acknowledged and managed with inclusion and acceptance. A supportive and encouraging workplace must have the flexibility to accommodate these differences, while utilizing the capabilities of each individual and maximizing their contribution to the long-term success of the organization.
Diversity in the workplace stems from the variety of values, perceptions, beliefs, feelings and abilities of people in an organization, and is often referred to in the context of communication. As such, the perceptions of what is right or wrong can vary considerably from person to person. The management of issues arising from differences in attitudes, values and emotional intelligence, as well as their implications for communication in organizations, is one of the most important discussions we can have about the workplace.
Diversity In The Workplace
Some studies of diversity in the workplace have focused on disability as an attitude object – defined as a person, object or event towards which beliefs, feelings and behavioral intentions are directed. Each person in the workplace may display a particular attitude towards disability through their behavior, which can be perceived as acceptable by some and unacceptable by others. How each person’s behavior is perceived depends on the “filter” applied by observers – a type of lens through which we view the world. This lens can be influenced by values, cultural background and other circumstances.
Over the past few decades, law makers have flagged the use of disability in a pejorative or negative context as inappropriate. This reflects, as most law changes do, the shifting public attitude towards disability and diversity in the workplace, which in turn is heavily influenced by law, thus repeating the cycle. Notwithstanding, co-worker’s behavioral intentions are strongly influenced by that persons feelings, experiences and values at the time of action. Likewise, the reactionary behavior of colleagues towards this behavior is shaped by their own personal attitudes, thus their behavior may differ from the agitator because each of their feelings and beliefs towards disability differs due to experience. It is expected therefore, that as new situations and events are experience that so too will the public lens or perception, and the law should follow suit.
The importance of awareness of the diversity of human experiences, values and backgrounds should not be underestimated. They can shape perceptions, feelings and beliefs, because they lead to communication that can impact not only on persons sensitive to disability, but on cultural diversity as well. Further, the failure of management to perceive diversity in the workplace issue as important may have implications for communication in the workplace, such us occluding open and honest communication for fear of reprisal, which may lead to discrimination in the workplace. Diversity training is one of the ways that employee attitudes can be changed, as well as enhancing business communication skills.
Attitudes do not work in isolation to influence behavior however; new research suggests a dual cognitive-emotional attitude process. This suggests that emotions have an uncontrollable and unconscious effect on behavior, to a degree dependent on their level of activation. In some cases, the negative evaluation of a co-workers’ actions may not generate a high enough level of activation to cause an immediate reaction. Indeed, there is another part to the diversity in the workplace equation, and that is emotional intelligence (EI) — the assortment of non-cognitive skills, capabilities and competencies for managing emotional cues and information.
Self-management of emotional intelligence can be demonstrated by the response to social pressure in the workplace. This is important as EI relates positively to job performance at all levels. A lack of empathy and social skills in colleagues’ behavior and responses may be an indicator of a low level of EI, which could lead to problems in a cultural diversity workplace, such as discrimination in the workplace and employees feeling alienated rather than included. The implications for organizations arousing such feelings can include lowered employee engagement, stifled innovation, resistance to positive organizational change and organizational under-performance. Thus it is imperative that managers look to conducting EI training and business communication skills training in order to maintain diversity in the workplace.
The role of stereotyping in communication has also featured prominently in recent studies about diversity in the workplace. Although stereotypes are held by individuals, they can represent cultural- or societal-level perceptions and beliefs. For example, instances of disability being used in a derogatory sense without reprisal may reflect an underlying organizational culture norm. It is therefore unlikely that any single action taken by individuals to address the issue will create wider meaningful change since the stable and permanent characteristics of an organization’s culture makes it resistant to change. The implications for cultural diversity on an organizational level are that in order to address grievances of individual members with values that differ from the “norm”, top level management must take a proactive approach in adjusting the organization’s culture over the long-term. In the short- to medium-term, management must ensure the communication climate is inclusive and values individuality and respect for diversity in the workplace.
The desire to change organizational culture would take the co-operation of the employees exhibiting the bad behavior. In order to avoid resentment it is best to call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly. Human beings are creatures of emotions, habit and prejudices, far from being logical in many instances. Any communication policy must take this into account, alongside recognition and reinforcement of diversity.
Management must also be conscious of the fact that employees communicate in the workplace through their own unique, perceptive lens, developed over years of experiences and emotions. Diversity in the workplace must be encouraged and fostered through management policy, which means forging an organizational culture that understands and values the variety of perspectives that exist in the workplace, by undertaking diversity training. Emotional intelligence plays a key role here as it helps employees to communicate openly and honestly without fear of retaliation. Without it, resistance to positive change is sure to haunt the organization, as negative stereotypes and other bad habits drag the potential for diversity in the workplace down.