Your article in the June 22 issue of Small Business Times was informative and timely. Working in human resources, I know the challenges that women and minorities confront. At my company, we emphasize attracting and retaining minority employees. I’d appreciate it very much if you could address some of the things companies can be doing to achieve a diverse workforce.
The article that the reader mentions highlighted the importance of an organization taking proactive steps to create a work environment that is welcoming and accepting of all employees, regardless of differences in gender, race, etc. I made the point that it’s absolutely the right thing to do if the organization truly wants to harness the full potential of its employees, not just the ones who mirror the majority.
In my last article in the July 20, 2007 issue of SBT, I addressed issues related to recruiting and attracting diverse employees. I discussed the legal environment as context for recruitment efforts and I spent some time talking about the important relationship between recruitment and organizational effectiveness. In this article, I’ll address issues relating to acclimating diverse employees.
Most organizations understand the importance of getting employees on board smoothly. New employee orientation (NEO) is a common practice today. However, NEO is, too often, more of an event, an episode that comes and goes, than it is a thorough, ongoing process that helps employees fully acclimate to their new work environment.
Acclimation is not something that happens in a half-day or daylong workshop. Rather, acclimation of new employees happens gradually, in a variety of ways, in a host of interactions as the new employee comes to learn and understand the culture of the organization.
Some researchers have used the term “socialization” to refer to this ongoing process. This is a formal method involving attempts made by the organization to impart its values, goals and perspectives, especially for newcomers.
Socialization is especially important for minority employees who, by definition, do not represent the mainstream of the organization. Without active assistance and encouragement, minority employees can become isolated. Over time, they can be marginalized, seen and not heard, etc. Under such circumstances, both the individual and organization suffer. Neither reaps the full potential of the affiliation.
Researchers have documented that the goals of socialization often include:
- Task mastery: Helping newcomers build competence in carrying out the tasks comprising a job.
- Role clarification: Assisting newcomers to gain information about their role in the organization.
- Acculturation: Offering learning opportunities for newcomers regarding the organization’s culture and helping them adjust to it.
- Social integration: Encouraging newcomers to become fully engaged in the organization’s social networks and information channels.
Training is the typical mechanism by which socialization occurs. As I’ve indicated, training for newcomers typically consists of new employee orientation programs. Normally, these are time-limited programs designed to help employees get comfortable as they come onboard.
Another alternative, and a more desirable approach in many respects, is an assimilation program. These are fairly robust, multi-month or multi-year programs designed to develop the cultural literacy of newcomers relative to the organization they have joined.
For organizations that are particularly sensitive to diversity issues, diversity training is still another training option. Diversity programs can range from brown bag lunch sessions to long-term organizational change efforts. They are designed to help people understand and appreciate issues of race and gender, challenge feelings of self-identity, and encourage sensitivity to issues underlying individual differences.
Additionally, socialization can be highly effective when it contains career development elements. By helping employees with career development, the organization is, in essence, saying, “We care about you and where you are going. We want to help you get there.”
Given the significant impact that a person’s job typically has for his or her life, this can be a very powerful way of helping individuals connect with the company, feel comfortable, etc. Again, this is especially true for minority employees who might feel unsure or uncertain about the organization, its values, their role, their future, etc.
As with any developmental program, the methods of career development vary from one setting to the next. Common approaches include:
- Self-directed workbooks
- Company-run career planning workshops
- Corporate seminars on career development
- Manager-employee career development discussions (e.g., mentoring)
- Talent assessment/assessment centers
- Formal corporate succession planning
Minority employees often face some obstacles regarding career development opportunities, though. The structure of the organization can be constraining (e.g., a company might employ a disproportionate number of women in the lowest paying jobs). Organizations might employ a large number of minority individuals, but non-minority individuals might dominate the power-roles (i.e., executive and managerial assignments). In terms of social opportunities, minorities might lack access to the important relationships associated with career development (e.g., mentoring).
With regard to this last point, mentoring is a popular and powerful tool for helping people navigate various career-related issues. Minority individuals might not have opportunities for mentoring because they are discriminated against, avoided, or because they or potential mentors harbor concerns about how the mentoring relationship might be perceived by others.
As diversity researchers have documented, people prefer to affiliate with others they perceive to possess similar characteristics such as race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, etc. In a company populated by non-minority individuals, this can leave minority employees on the outside looking in.
What can be done to help minority individuals fully access socialization and career development opportunities? Diversity researchers suggest the following. First, minority individuals might help themselves by actively networking in more than one circle (e.g., seeking out social support with dominant group members and with members of their own minority group), thus expanding the social spheres in which they are operating. Second, organizations might emphasize building diverse developmental relationships (e.g., a white male who is a senior manager mentoring an African-American female). In doing so, these relationships will challenge stereotypes and combat misconceptions.
Ultimately, the leadership of the organization must decide how important the socialization of new employees is to organization adaptation. From my perspective, at a minimum, the leadership team truly committed to a diverse workforce will practice the concepts I have highlighted in this article. They will establish a corporate culture that emphasizes assimilation and socializing. They will facilitate conditions that foster career development and upward mobility for minority employees.