Diversity is a good thing. Always has been. Always will be. But, still, it can be just as dangerous as it is good. While a diverse staff can be a great thing and bring amazing new perspectives to the table, it can also cause palpable tensions that destroy whatever benefits have already been brought to the table.
The reason is obvious: People are touchy about issues like race, religion and personal orientation; yet understanding "diversity" as comprising much more than these things can help you become a better manager and employer. Here are a few tips.
1. Redefine, and recognize the many types of diversity.
As already stated, diversity has many categories, and not all are readily noticeable. To notice them you have to peer a little deeper. One key reason many people feel comfortable in one workplace, but unfulfilled in another, may be because they are diverse in those subtle little ways.
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That all your staff hail from the same state doesn’t mean they are not diverse. For instance, you have to take note of the obvious diversities like race, religion, gender and sexual orientation, but you also need to find out about the small guy who always slinks away from birthday celebrations; you need to notice the diversity of thought among your staff members.
The meaning of diversity has changed. Factors can be as simple as height. That unusually small guy? He may be plagued by a confidence complex and think he sees discrimination where it doesn’t exist. The office's extremely tall guy, meanwhile, may feel the exact same way.
2. Redefine discrimination, and clamp down on all its forms.
Workplace jokes are often what make work fun, and the resulting camaraderie is what makes people look forward to coming to work the next day or to the next online meeting. Yet certain jokes and comments must be closely censored.
In a friend's company, where most of the staff worked remotely and hailed from diverse nations; “Hello Jimmy, how is Africa?” addressed to a man named Jimmy who actually was in Africa degenerated to a racist slur when voiced repeatedly.
Discrimination is the most common result of diversity and the reason that same workplace diversity can be harmful at times. The Workforce Diversity Network has redefined discrimination to include actions both intentional and unintentional, conscious and subconscious -- all of which should be recogized and acted on by the manager closest in contact with the offending staff.
3. Celebrate diversity in all ways possible.
“Our clients are based in over 160 countries around the world," Antoniades replied. "I love the unique perspectives brought to the table and I particularly enjoy the many celebrations we have -- including the Chinese Moon Festival, the Polish national day and our Brits this year [who] celebrated Pancake Day. Recently we celebrated Carnival, which kicked off with a barbeque at work and was followed by a week of dressing up in costumes. Most of the celebrations are around food -- who can complain?”
Moving out of your comfort zone to other people's once in a while is a surefire way of maintaining decorum in a diverse workplace.
4. Keep reaching out.
Keep trying to learn about your staff, especially the new hires. Talk to them personally, and find out where they are from.
Vincent Seglior, who was the World Trade Institute's director of international training for 12 years, advises that managers place new hires who are from a different culture under longer-term staff who are from similar backgrounds but have become more integrated.
It's necessary to maintain the company culture, but to do this you may have to hold an orientation session any time there are personnel changes in your department. Be a manager who develops open relationships with your diverse staff. Talk to them positively -- both in a group and individually.
According to Seglior, if you remain curious, receptive and open to learning about people's different cultures, your staff will benefit, and so will you.
5. Don’t assume people understand your jokes.
A former manager I know of made a joke in a staff meeting about people who didn’t go through college. I understood that he was trying to be funny, and it really would have been funny had there not been a fair number of people among the staff who hadn't gone through college. I saw their faces turn red, literally, and the manager didn’t even notice.
Not everyone has your experience or privileges. You need to know your staff well, and be sensitive to their differences. Don’t assume they ought to get your joke, because the next time you pass them over for a promotion, they may think it's because of their difference.
That being said, a diverse workforce creates differences and some challenges, but if handled well it can explode with benefits.