Reap rewards from a diverse workforce

The reality is clear and here to stay – the contemporary workforce is increasingly diverse. The low-cost rewards associated with developing and maintaining this workforce include what every business needs in a climate of stiff foreign and domestic competition: improved morale, lower turnover, fewer errors, customer loyalty and greater profitability.

Personal experiences as an owner/operator have illustrated just how diverse the contemporary workforce can be with respect to race, ethnicity, country of origin, culture, socioeconomic status, age, gender and sexual orientation.

My teams have included men and women, gays and straights, teenagers to seniors, Native Americans, Whites, Blacks, Hispanics and current or former immigrants from southeast Asia, Mexico, Ethiopia, Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom and the former Soviet Union.

I have also managed a wide range of fluency in English, employment experience, incarceration backgrounds, educational levels, and current socio-economic status. Effective training and management allowed us to minimize workplace conflicts and maximize rewards in this “Workplace United Nations.”

Because the workforce varies from business to business, there is no single magic formula that works everywhere. But, a good place to start is with a few common sense, basic guidelines.

Make the commitment.

The commitment to diversity must “start at the top” and be communicated to the entire company. Without this, success will be limited and sporadic.

Start simple.

Food has more relevance to the topic of managing diversity than it might seem at first glance. Provide space and opportunities for the team to eat together and share meals. It shouldn’t be surprising that some of the most important bonding among team members occurs around meals, especially during holiday-time and other celebratory lunches, when people bring their favorite ethnic dishes. The discussions about each other’s meals and related customs, and the active participation by people who are ordinarily more introverted, will have lasting effects.

Managers and supervisors need diversity training and experience.

More than the customary training and experience in “leadership” is needed. Specialized training should be provided by professionals with high levels of experience, competence, creativity and understanding; comparable to what you expect of your accountants, attorneys, IT staff, HR staff, and other professionals.

Cultural and stylistic differences must be respected.

“Respect” does not mean accepting behaviors that are incompatible with the goals of the team and the business. Being late to work every day, no matter what it might mean to an employee, is not acceptable and must be stopped. On the other hand, a quiet style of communicating in a team meeting is acceptable and must be permitted. Well-trained leaders understand that if a change in behavior is necessary, it often is their own leadership that needs to change. Well-led employees respect each other’s obvious and more subtle differences instead of being critical. They learn to be appropriately flexible about what is normal, expected, or even acceptable behavior.

What can be misunderstood, most likely will be.

When anyone thinks there is no further need to work on effective communication, trouble lies ahead. “Perfectly clear” instructions can have radically different meanings among those who have to carry them out. Communications that invite subjective interpretation must be reduced as much as possible. Instead of repeatedly instructing that a particular process must be done “the same way each time,” consider additional automation. Instead of repeatedly instructing that a particular handmade product must be assembled, cleaned and packed “the same way each time,” prominently display samples of “perfect” products for use as templates.

Diversity will produce unexpected responses to discipline, incentives and recognition.

Find out what is important to various people and groups. Whenever possible, build this into daily operations. What works with one person or group might not work with others. Some cultural traditions place a high value on individual rewards and find it appropriate when a recipient openly celebrates recognition. Other traditions expect an individual to be uncomfortable receiving an award that excludes others on a team who will feel slighted. In this circumstance, it would be better to reward the collective effort.

A good way to conclude is with a caveat. The rewards from developing and maintaining a contemporary, diverse workforce are not as readily quantifiable as those that might flow from other investments such as the introduction of flexible automation. However, to conclude that “hard to quantify” must mean “less important” can prove to be a costly mistake.

Diversity is about much more than just a “feel good” way to operate. It is about adapting to reality and looking forward. It is about nothing less than smart, profitable business.

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