UK: DISCOMFORTING ROUTE TO DIVERSITY. - Welcoming diversity in the workplace is one of the key management challenges of the '90s. Which UK businesses can confidently claim to employ a diverse workforce? How many organisations understand how to create, nu

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Welcoming diversity in the workplace is one of the key management challenges of the '90s. Which UK businesses can confidently claim to employ a diverse workforce? How many organisations understand how to create, nurture and manage a diverse group of employees? What proportion of managers view employees who depart from their companies' cultural norm as helpful rather than irritating?

As director of the Industrial Society it was the startling homogeneity rather than diversity of most UK company employees that struck me most forcibly. On training days at the society it was easy to identify who would be taking what course from the age, gender, race and appearance of delegates waiting in the coffee lounge. The conventionally dressed, 30-40-year-old Caucasian men, all of similar height, haircut and ties, were marked out as junior managers, team leaders or first line supervisors. Elegantly dressed women of 25-35 were attending the senior secretary and PA programmes. Only on days when a glorious mixture of coffee drinkers milled around - all heights, all races, all ages, all genders, sporting a variety of clothing styles - did the formula change. It was obvious - the voluntary sector was in town.

If we believe that we are well set up in Britain to manage more diversity in the workplace we are seriously deluding ourselves. In reality the majority of workplaces are still staffed by highly homogeneous groups of workers organised in very conventional ways. People may take a dig at the stereotypical dark-suited, white-shirted, clean-shaven IBM salesman but the majority of companies are comfortably unaware of the extent of their own conformity. The culture of an organisation is powerfully expressed by the nature of its employees and the way they present themselves to the rest of the world. Usually that presentation conveys more similarity than difference and carries the strong message that attitudes and behaviours are expected to conform, too.

he issue goes way beyond mere physical appearance: demographic trends, educational opportunities, and altering working practices are changing the pool of prospective employees. The only real growth in the population today is among ethnic minorities whose career expectations will challenge many companies' traditional assumptions. A much wider variety of educational institutions are producing graduates with degrees that many of us find hopelessly unfamiliar; an increasing number of those graduates are mature students whose past experience comes with them - they may wish for flexible working such as part-time, temporary or contract work; and the proportion of women in the workforce is rising steadily.

These changes will force organisations to adopt new employment practices. Companies seeking to attract the best recruits may need to ask themselves some searching questions. How relevant is the current selection process to today's school leaver or graduate? Where are the role models within the organisation to give testimony to the company's promise of a fair chance for all?

Organisations must further ask how well equipped their current managers are to manage and motivate a more diverse team. To date, most managers have experience of leading a fairly congruent group of people from a similar professional/technical background to themselves within a predominantly functional organisational structure. The principal managerial task has been the internal control and supervision of one's own department with little interest in what went on elsewhere. As organisations become more outwardly focused, managers are finding themselves with teams drawn from a wide range of backgrounds, attitudes and expectations; but are short of the skills necessary to lead them effectively.

All changes create some initial discomfort. Experience shows, however, that people's fear of change is more painful than the actuality. When the Stock Exchange first introduced women for security and messenger duties, there was much concern among the existing all-male staff. What would the women wear? Would they have to mind their language in the recreation club? How would their duties differ? Within weeks, the whole drama was a non-issue.

ncreased diversity is not merely inevitable in the workplace, it is positively beneficial - a change for the better. Employers should embrace the opportunities that difference offers and understand the compelling business reasons why diversity should be welcomed. Local authorities, for example, have been among the first to realise the benefits. If the population you serve is diverse then it makes enormous sense to employ staff who can help determine the most appropriate ways to provide services for a particular sector of that community. Business, too, is catching on. A female board member of a major retailing plc was recently approached by her chief executive who said: 'It has just occurred to me that most of our customers are women and I don't think I know what's in a woman's mind when she walks into a shop. I don't feel I know what women are like as customers.' On his particular road to Damascus he finally realised that his huge business was brought to him by people he felt he didn't understand.

In America some organisations are going even further by encouraging staff to form themselves into special interest groups such as gays, Hispanics, Afro-Caribbean, women, etc. By encouraging people of similarly diverse backgrounds to get together to talk about business issues, management believes it will gain a new set of insights into the business which it would not otherwise have had.

Switched-on organisations are beginning to view difference not as a nuisance but as a creative opportunity. Taking this view is not always easy. It means spending a great deal of time listening while retaining an open mind. Employees may say some things which are uncomfortable to hear and challenge existing assumptions about relationships at work and how work is done. Management gurus already agree that what distinguishes quality leaders and captains of industry from the rest is their avoidance of the comfort zone. Organisations that open their arms to diversity must first learn to live with discomfort.

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