27 Oct

Do You Know Your Workforce

Corporate diversity training and education emerged in Human Resources departments as a reaction to the civil rights movement. As workplaces began to integrate their staff, conflict and tension was inevitable. During the 1960s demonstrations by activists prompted by the Freedom Riders and other civil rights displays the previously silent minority began to push back against dismissive or discriminatory treatment. The American African diaspora found their voices regarding their treatment as citizens and workers and pushed for legal protection. With new laws to prosecute discrimination it became not just ethically viable to support minority employees, but essential to avoid costly litigation and the market share of an increasingly upwardly mobile minority population. Sensitivity towards and awareness of racial differences became an industry and diversity training was born. Fast forward to 2015 and you will find that embracing diversity is also good for business! First you must understand the cultures within your workplace and strive to be inclusive.

Beyond Black and White

While diversity education began with a focus on the acceptance of African Americans in the integrated workforce, in time other ethnic groups were represented within the curriculum. Immigration from most Asian countries was curtailed for most of American history. So, the needs of Asian immigrants were rarely addressed. The small number of Asian immigrants allowed the population to either isolate themselves (Chinatowns for example) or assimilate and become silent. But the 1965 Immigration Act finally opened legal immigration pathways to populations throughout the Asian continent. Over the past 50 years the influx of Asian-Americans into professional positions in American companies is noteworthy. They are a population that can no longer be ignored.

In light of this history, diversity programs must change to adapt to growing globalization, increased international communication, and inter-country outsourcing to staff working in countries with growing economies.

Tips to effective contemporary diversity training:

  1. Know your audience

The old training model focusing on black/white issues is no longer adequate to meet the needs of most companies in metropolitan areas. Prior to any training presentation, it is essential to prepare a comprehensive needs-assessment of the company community, the work environment, the population of staff, and the clients they serve. Every organization has unique needs and assumptions about who you are addressing and how they work will hinder the effectiveness of training provided. Do not allow your own biases to factor into the structure of the presentation. Use facts and be sure to ask the right questions before gathering content and preparing exercises.

  1. Consider historical cultural context

Do not assume that all people of the same race have the same needs and/or mindset. Africans and African Americans come from a wide range of places and experiences. The needs of Jamaican staff can be very different than that of a new immigrant from Sierra Leone, or a black descendant of American slavery. Similarly, Asian and Caucasian staff can come from a wide range of cultures and should not be treated as a monolith. In this regard, keep in mind certain cultures that have long standing rivalries or historical disputes. Sometimes staff that appear similar in racial make-up actually have ancestral issues could manifest itself in the workplace. Japan and South Korea, for example, have a contentious history and this could bleed into how they work together. Despite being geographic neighbors, their cultures and languages are distinctly different. Similarly, Indians and Pakistanis have a shared heritage, and yet have been rivals since the split into two separate countries decades ago. The Germans and Turks, the Israelis and Palestinians, and the Cubans and Mexicans are some other examples of people who may appear ethnically similar but have historical cultural issues that can cause conflict when working together.

  1. Investigate Intra-ethnic disputes

Knowing the ethnicity of your audience is important, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Many ethnic communities have a stratum or more of “under-class” that experience discrimination. These cultural attitudes do not disappear just because the individuals are now working in an American company. India, for example, has long held a caste system that organizes people by birth-righted social class. If a new manager was born into the lowest Dalits caste, and has a direct report who comes from a Brahman family, a culture of disrespect could linger. A western Human Resources department may struggle to understand where the conflict is arising from. The Roma in Eastern Europe and the Hmong in south East Asia are other populations of historical underclass that may struggle to gain respect when working with other people that initially appear to come from the same geographic region.

  1. Religion

Many office places discourage talk of religion and politics in the workplace. While that is wise to squash issues that can emerge from proselytization, religion often effects the way people do their work and therefore cannot be ignored. Muslim staff may need a place to quietly pray multiple times throughout the day. This could affect when recurrent meetings are scheduled and how office space is used. It may be more productive, if an office has a large Muslim population to repurpose a vacant office for prayer to decrease the amount of time the staff members are using to find an alternative quiet place. With religion also comes dietary restrictions. This can become problematic if work is regularly done over “coffee breaks” at the local coffee shop when caffeine is forbidden for Mormons or at happy hour where alcohol consumption is expected. Festive pot-lucks and other food focused social events can be equally challenging to Hindus and Muslims alike. Having sensitivity about who is eating and their religious practice around food is essential to a harmonious workplace.

  1. Sexual Orientation and Gender Expression

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual staff are decreasingly marginalized and therefore are more likely to express their relationship status in the workplace. Encouraging an environment that allows all staff to display pictures of their loved ones and family members, makes for a more comfortable atmosphere. Likewise, transgender employees and those outside of the hetero-normative culture may need support from HR to thrive in their jobs. Accommodations for gender-neutral bathroom facilities can help decrease the binary gender thinking that could cause a transgendered staff member to feel judged. Likewise, staff that exist outside of the gender stereotype norms are at risk for discrimination.

  1. Communication style and Linguistic challenges

Sometimes cultural upbringing can affect the way a person communicates information that is hard to hear. An employee from a background with a Confucian mindset might avoid telling someone a negative opinion and instead seem to talk around the issue, “beating around the bush.” This communication style is allowing the other person to “save face” and not feel shamed or embarrassed about a shortcoming or a mistake. This can be disconcerting to an American who is used to a more direct method of communicating. On the other hand, many Eastern Europeans will be very blunt in their criticism, not wanting to “sugar-coat” problems but instead getting to the heart of the issue quickly. Both communication styles can be off-putting and cause conflict if the receiver of the information doesn’t understand the intention behind it.

  1. Disabilities

An office having staff with disabilities can also create a culture of discomfort if the other staff are not well informed on what limitations and accommodations they must take into consideration. If an employee is deaf, is there a way for them to participate in a conference call? If not, how can the person participate in the project when their skill set is necessary? Understanding how to work with disabled staff is not limited to sensory disabilities like blindness or deafness or mobility challenges. Cognitive disabilities will become a primary issue in the workforce as more people are diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, and behaviors that fall on the Autism spectrum. These medical conditions can affect the way a staff member works, processes information, and schedules their time. These employees may not pick up on social cues or inferred expectations. Educating staff and employees to be sensitive to these issues is essential.

  1. Social status and financial means

Social class is a universal identifier that can manifest itself through the clothing someone wears, the frequency of going out to lunch, and the car one drives. These subtleties can manifest themselves through conversation in the break room about a ski vacation to Aspen versus an employee working a second job to make ends meet. While most people do not discuss salary, the topic can be an undercurrent of other seemingly harmless interactions. Discussing how to keep the environment class neutral can benefit every organization.

In the changing global workforce, adequate diversity training is no longer one-size-fits-all. Customizing the training curriculum for the unique population receiving the content is essential. These eight topics should be considered within that context to get to the heart of the specific problems occurring.  Anything less is merely an anachronism of HR training.

Melinda Solomon is a Training Project Manager with a focus on change management, Agile implementation, and intercountry cross-cultural workforce issues. She has worked with diverse teams in over 20 countries and with multiple government agencies. Through her various training initiatives and identified best practices, she has saved her clients over $1M. She is an expert at leveraging Kanban and Scrum methodologies to enhance team performance, facilitate better communication, and improve efficiencies through the theory of constraints. She holds a master’s degree in international education from University of Massachusetts, is a certified scrum master, and holds a project management certification from the project management institute.