Unraveling Diversity Management: a Practitioner’s Road Map to Doing it Right

by Benavides, Gladis Thursday, January 12, 2012
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Recently, one of my clients had a question that provided me with some food for thought. He asked, “When do I know that I have achieved diversity and created a work environment where everybody feels good about work?”

I quickly responded, “Never!”

He then asked for clarification, and that response took a little more time. After much thought and consideration, however, here’s what I came up:

We need to understand that Diversity Management is not about managing or supervising widgets; it’s about managing and supervising human beings. Each person in an organization has his or her unique culture, which I describe as “cultural tapes.” There are good, bad and ugly folks in every group, community and place in the planet, as well as environmental and other factors that contribute to the creation of tension, conflicts and responses to differences in the workplace.

So, what is a manager or supervisor to do to ensure a welcoming, harassment-free work environment for a multi-cultural workforce? The devil is in the details. Let me give you a recipe of sorts to help achieve compliance and provide employees with clear, consistent communication protocols. Although I can’t guarantee that you’ll never have complaints or difficult issues to address, following these steps is an excellence place to start.

1. Be proactive in providing your employees with clear policies and procedures that identify your organization’s expectations regarding appropriate behaviors in the workplace. Make sure to include those expectations regarding behavior at any function under the auspices of the organization, such as picnics, conferences, holiday celebrations, etc.

2. Establish the fact that appropriate behavior, including both verbal and non-verbal communication, is not an issue of preference but one of performance when functioning in the workplace.

3. Address concerns raised by employees in a timely and thorough manner. A supervisor’s function is to be neutral, to listen to all parties involved, to evaluate the situation and to make a determination based on the facts. However, it is important to recognize that sometimes a situation may have some history behind it and that you may be seeing the end of a longer story rather than an isolated incident.

4. Remember that a violation may occur not only by intent but also by result. An individual may not intend to discriminate or even harass another, but you must look at the context, the cultural interpretation and/or the impact that’s made because of a gesture, comment or particular word.

5. Monitor behavior. Note that I did not say “pry” or “spy,” but “monitor.” Monitoring is important because you may observe behavior from one or more of your employees that could be a source of complaints and/or create a hostile work environment. An early detection of such behavior allows you to counsel individuals proactively instead of being forced to deal with a complaint or hostile work environment after the fact.

6. Be fair and consistent when enforcing policies and procedures and making decisions regarding disciplinary actions. I recently learned that retaliation charges filed with the Federal government have gone up almost 35 percent in the last couple of years. The allegations of differential treatment are generally filed by individuals who believe they have been treated unfairly or that their supervisor has imposed a sanction on him or her that is harder than what others received without good reason or additional charges. Fairness and consistency are critical. All decisions must be defensible and based solely on facts.

Remember, conflict resolution isn’t about making people happy. It’s about achieving closure in a fair and consistent manner. Following these suggestions and adhering to them on a consistent basis doesn’t mean you won’t receive a complaint or be forced to address issues regarding race, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability or others. However, you will be in a very good position to prevent issues and respond appropriately to any that are brought to your attention.

A diverse workforce can be creative, energetic and productive, but it can also challenge managers and supervisors. They must be willing to acknowledge differences and learn how to create an environment that leads to the success and growth of the organization.