How to Respect Diversity in the Workplace

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It's easy for a company to say it has respect for diversity. It's a lot tougher to actually walk the walk. Having diversity in the workplace runs the risk of culture clashes and dealing with sensitive issues that wouldn't come up in a monoculture. Bringing your company to the point that it truly respects diversity is a challenge, but it's worth the effort.

Diversity in the Workplace

Legally, most businesses can't discriminate on the basis of age, gender, religion, ethnicity, nationality and race. Some states and local governments add other protected classes, such as sexual orientation. However, there are also positive benefits that come from diversity in the workplace.

  • You can draw from a bigger talent pool than if, for example, you didn't hire women.
  • Employees from different cultures with different languages make it easier to do business with those cultures.
  • Your company benefits from a wider range of skills, talents, life experiences and perspectives.
  • With many different perspectives, innovative ideas often come easier.
  • Many employees feel more comfortable when they know the company respects them regardless of race, religion or other factors. 

Diversity Has Drawbacks

A diverse approach aims to recognize value and manage differences among employees. Success requires knowing and dealing with the problems a diverse workforce can generate:

  • Your team may have trouble communicating. Different languages, different accents, different slang and idioms can all get in the way.
  • People may become self-conscious about whether their behavior toward, for example, female, gay or foreign coworkers is objectionable.
  • Employees who don't want a diverse team may lash out at their coworkers.

To maximize diversity's benefits and minimize the downside may require spending more money on training.

Connect With Your Team

It may feel easier and safer to spend your time with employees who match you in gender, age, faith, nationality, etc. Showing respect for diversity requires reaching out.

  • Get to know employees who come from diverse backgrounds. Have actual conversations and try to connect, not just smile and nod in passing.
  • When you need feedback or input, solicit it from a diverse group, not just the people you know or are comfortable with.
  • Learn your team's skills and abilities. That helps avoid making stereotypical assumptions about what they may be qualified to do. 

Free Your Mind

Once your company develops some diversity in the workplace, you may find you have biases of your own about people who are gay, Muslim, Hispanic, female or other groups. It's important not to let bias shape your management style.

  • Make yourself aware of your biases. Don't allow them to influence your thinking.
  • When you're hiring, promoting or handing out assignments to employees, make an extra effort to do so based on ability, experience and skill. Operating from bias is not acceptable, and it's possibly illegal.
  • Don't be offensive. Calling women "girls" or making jokes that mock Muslim or Catholic employees tells them you have no respect for diversity in the workplace.
  • Think outside the box. The religious world has lots of holy days besides the Christian ones, and some of your employees might like those days off. Some employees may have dietary restrictions; before ordering ham and cheese sandwiches for an office lunch, check if everyone's cool with that. 

Zero Tolerance

Even if you feel comfortable with diversity in the workplace, your team may not. If you turn a blind eye to harassment of any sort, your employees won't believe you have any respect for diversity.

Even if the harassment doesn't cross the line into illegality, tolerating it is a mistake. When employees see what sort of behavior you'll let them get away with, that encourages more of the same. Victims who think you'll turn a blind eye are less likely to report. Studies show tolerating sexual harassment leads to more sexual harassment.

  • You need a policy in place for dealing with harassment and bigotry complaints. 
  • When someone reports a violation, you or your HR department needs to investigate.
  • If necessary, train your managers and supervisors on how to demonstrate respect for diversity

References

About the Author

Fraser Sherman has written about every aspect of business: how to start one, how to keep one in the black, the best business structure, the details of financial statements. He's also run a couple of small businesses of his own. He lives in Durham NC with his awesome wife and two wonderful dogs. His website is frasersherman.com

Photo Credits

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