Building a diverse workforce or diverse teams isn't simple. Employees on diversity teams in the workplace may have to adjust to differences in culture, language and attitudes that wouldn't exist if they all came from one demographic. The benefits of diversity in teams make it worthwhile, however.
Some advantages of diversity in teams include greater creativity, wider perspectives, more cultural knowledge and increased employee loyalty.
There are three basic arguments concerning why diversity of teams in the workplace is a good thing.
- It's the ethical thing to do. Even if you're used to managing all-white, all-male teams, recruiting people on that basis is unfair to talented women and people of color.
- Discrimination is illegal. The law doesn't mandate quotas such as certain percentages of women, Jews, Hispanics, etc., but federal law requires businesses to hire, retain and promote workers regardless of characteristics such as ethnicity, gender and religion.
- Diversity in teams is good for the bottom line. For example, a project manager who assumes that women can't handle STEM-related projects is ruling out 50 percent of the workforce as potential hires. That's limiting, whereas being open to diversity broadens the talent pool.
Many organizations that see the benefits of diversity don't do well in creating it in their workforce. Like any business goal, gaining the benefits of diversity in teams requires planning and thought.
- Identify your goal. Do you want to increase the number of people of color in leadership positions? Increase gender diversity in teams to crack the women's market for your product? Different goals require different strategies.
- Carve your own path. A startup recruiting its first project teams is in a different place from a mega-corporation with an overwhelmingly white, male staff. What works for one organization may not be right for another.
- Obtain buy-in. If the managers and team leaders don't see why diversity matters, they won't support it.
- Implement well. If the people you put in charge of diversity initiatives don't have the skill set to manage the program, it will fail.
The benefits of diversity in teams are about more than tapping a bigger talent pool. When your team comes from different cultures, faiths, nations, genders and ethnicities, they won't all see the world in the same way. This benefits your company in multiple ways:
- Different cultural perspectives generate greater creativity. Put together multiple employees who see the world differently, and the team can generate better ideas.
- Diverse teams are more likely to operate from facts rather than from stereotypes. They're also more likely to spot when other members are operating from bias rather than data.
- Companies where management has greater racial and gender diversity often generate a greater rate of return.
- If you want to penetrate overseas markets, having members of the relevant nationality on the team gives the company a clearer perspective on local laws, customs, language and the competitive landscape.
- Having members on your team who are familiar with different cultures can avoid unwittingly using language or images that offend the target market.
- Likewise, gender diversity in teams can make it easier to spot ads that are sexist or condescending to women before the ad campaign is launched.
- Companies that prioritize diversity of teams in the workplace can boost employee loyalty. They're also attractive to new employees, particularly younger ones who are used to diversity in the rest of their life.
Increasing the number of women in team leadership positions also brings benefits. Women leaders serve as role models and mentors for other women in the team. They focus more on data-driven decisions in hiring and often look for more quiet, less-showy talent to recruit or promote.
All of this can prove to be self-reinforcing. If team members regularly see women in leadership positions, that changes their perception of who can lead and of what women are capable. That can make it easier for more women to be heard.
Creating a diversity of teams in the workplace does have its downside. It can lead to discomfort, confusion and problems communicating, particularly if some of your staff members aren't enthusiastic.
- Employees may have different ideas about how to work on teams. Some cultures value a collaborative, consensus-driven approach, while others place priority on individual opinions and ideas. Members of some cultures may feel they're crossing a line when questioning their superiors.
- Professionals from different cultures have very different ideas of what constitutes a reasonable quitting time or when it's appropriate to be informal.
- Training about dealing with diversity and cultural issues will take more time, effort and money.
- If some of your team are foreign to the U.S., your company will have to navigate the work-immigration visa system.
- You may have to make special accommodations for some team members. A Muslim may need a place to lay out a prayer mat and worship, for instance. New mothers may want a space where they can pump breast milk in comfort and privacy.
Cultural, ethnic and gender stereotyping are common, and it's quite possible that they exist in your company. That creates another set of problems.
- Team members and leaders may judge their colleagues based on stereotypes, such as women being too emotional or Asians being good with technology.
- Employees who don't accept women or Jews as their equals, for example, may show open disrespect or subtly try to undercut them in the office.
- Workers who enjoy telling offensive jokes may feel frustrated if members of a diverse team object to this. Other employees may worry that they have to watch everything they say in order to avoid being offensive.
Some employees and managers aren't just uncomfortable with diversity. They may express bigoted comments, such as calling Muslim coworkers terrorists, or they may ignore black or female team members but respond to the same ideas from white men. This can wreck your efforts to create a diversity of teams in the workplace.
Employees may work this out among themselves. In some cases, the offense is the result of someone being clueless, and they may stop once they learn better. In other cases, the wronged employee will report the issue, so the company should be ready to deal with such problems.
- Listen to the complaint and don't brush it off with "They didn't mean anything" or the like.
- Do not do anything to retaliate against the accuser.
- Keep the complaint confidential.
- Conduct a prompt, thorough investigation and document the findings. In some cases, such as a charge leveled at upper management, it might be smart to outsource the investigation to an outside party.
- If the complaint is valid, discipline the problem employees no matter how valuable or important they are.
- Failure to handle complaints fairly is not only unethical, but it can end up with the victim suing you.
Employees are often nervous about change. If your diversity policies are a new thing, good communication may help head off employee resistance before it starts.
- Talk with employees early and often. Explain why the changes you're making are a good thing.
- Listen to employee feedback. Don't assume that employees who are uncomfortable are all uncomfortable for the same reason.
- Prepare and plan for the new diversity initiative to ensure it goes well.
- Be transparent. Communicate constantly about how the changes are progressing and what comes next.