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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Diversity at workplaces: What & wherefrom?

We live in a society that is known for its differences. Diversity in terms of multiculturalism, gender politics, affirmative action, preferences, and mandates has become part of our existence. We are today more actively dividing ourselves by race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, cultural norms, physical ability, and socio-economic status, than in the past. Though diversity hasbeen in existence since long, it is only recently that it has attracted greater attention from the corporate mandarins.

The reasons behind such heightened attention are many: it makes a great lot of economic sense, for “diversity” at workplaces in terms of human skills has tremendous potential to make organizational success a reality. Secondly, as businesses are becoming increasingly global, the need for working with people from different cultures as customers and suppliers is growing and companies with employees from different cultures could obviously march over the rest. Thirdly, diversity in society itself is capable of impacting the behaviour of employees at workplaces. Looking from any of these perspectives, corporates’ interest in “diversity” appears to be well founded. However, to better appreciate this growing interest in “diversity”, let us take a look at what diversity is; how it arises; why diversity in organizations; and the management challenges posed by the ‘diversity’ in organizations.

What is diversity?

Different organizations are viewing ‘diversity’ in different ways. By diversity, we commonly mean differences based on ethnicity, gender, age, religion, disability, national origin and sexual orientation. But technically speaking, diversity goes beyond these visibilities and encompasses an infinite range of individuals’ unique characteristics and experiences including communication styles, physical characteristics such as height and weight, speed of learning and comprehension, socio-economical and educational-background.

The diversities associated with education, socioeconomics and work experience are of course today considered more critical for organizational success. It this context, diversity has become a resource for organizations. At the workplace, ‘diversity’, if properly managed, optimizes the willingness and ability of all employees to contribute to the organizational success by encouraging each employee to draw fully on the talents, different points of view, skills, and practices that have been brought into the system by a heterogenous group of employees for the benefit of both the individual and the organization.

Today, elite corporates are taking initiative to attract people with an array of talents, experiences and perspectives, socioeconomic background and then to individually and aggregately empower them to give everything they have in order to attain business objectives.  The goal of diversity is not to count people by category, but to benefit from the best mix of people regardless of such a category. It is the organizations which could induct diversity into system in tune with their vision and strategic objectives that have reaped more benefits. For instance, IBM is one company that has by design built ‘diversity’ in its human resources as a ‘strategy’ since 1995.

 Diversity: Sources

We all know that people show substantial individual differences in how they respond to the same situation based on personal characteristics. Of course, there is a proposition of psychology, which says that behaviour is a function of the person interacting with his or her environment. For example an impatient employee might get frustrated while working for a firm that expects him to seek approval/decision from many levels before acting on even routine customer needs. But the same person working in a flatter organization where decision making centers are quite few, might enjoy his work and in the process may deliver the best to the organization. That is how diversity in the workforce fosters varied responses, ideas, and outputs which an organization can use at the requisite slots.

Research has identified seven major individual differences among employees: People differ in:

  • Productivity – John E. Hunter[1] et al. (1990) found that as the jobs get complex individual differences impact the output greatly. 
  • Ability and talent – Besides motivation and self-confidence people need the ability and talent needed to perform a given job and its presence or absence makes a great difference in the ultimate performance. 
  • Propensity for achieving high quality results – It’s commonsensical that some people by nature strive for excellence in whatever they do and take pride in it. People who don’t have these traits obviously face difficulty in achieving the targets. 
  •  How much they want to be empowered and involved – Some employers shun responsibilities while some love to get empowered and take decisions and they feel fulfilled when handling such challenges. 
  • The style of leadership they prefer and need – Some employees prefer freedom at workplaces to function well while some others need close monitoring. Of course, it’s the less competent and less motivated who needs constant supervision. 
  •  Their need for contact with other people – Some people need to be always in groups, otherwise feel frustrated. There are some who prefer to work in isolation – all by themselves – but prove to be highly productive. 
  •  Their amount of commitment and loyalty to the firm – Some employees are so loyal to the organization that they assume themselves to be partners in the business while some may exhibit little or no commitment at all.

There are also certain visible diversities such as:
  • Demographic diversity – differences in background factors that defines worker attitudes and behaviour; 
  • Sex and gender differences – mostly differences in terms of ability and motivation that will effect job performance; 
  • Age and experience-based differences – reflect mostly in terms of absenteeism, illness, higher job satisfaction etc., though age and job performance are quite unrelated; 
  • Racial and ethnic differences – racioethnic differences in job performance are mostly attributable to culture rather than to race or ethnic background itself; and
  •  Disability status – physical or mental condition that substantially limits an individuals activities. 
  • Personality – the persistent and enduring behaviour patterns of an individual – differences are yet another source of diversity. The major personality factors such as:
  • Extroversion 
  •  Emotional stability 
  • Agreeableness 
  • Conscientiousness 
  • Openness to experience 
  • Self-monitoring of behaviour and 
  • Emotional intelligence
are known to heavily impact an employee’s performance at workplaces. The cognitive stage of an individual is defined by his personality. It determines how an individual gathers and evaluates information. ‘Sensation type’ individuals prefer routine and orderliness in their job process, where as ‘intuitive-type’ people desire to have an overall perspective and also enjoy solving new problems. The two extreme styles of evaluating information emphasize the differences between “feeling” and “thinking” people. Feeling type people are essentially conformists and by all means try to avoid disagreement. Contrarily, thinking type individuals rely more on their intellect rather than emotion to solve problems.
  • Intelligence – the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge in doing things, including problem solving – is yet another source of diversity. Research has proved that intelligence is positively related to a job performance. It has also revealed that the diversity under intelligence arises mostly out of its constituents:
  • Componential – such people score excellent under IQ exemplifying componential aspects of intelligence and such people are good at budgeting type of works; 
  • Contextual – scores mediocre ratings under IQ test but is ‘street smart’, for they know how to manipulate the environment; and 
  • Experiential – ratings under IQ test are again mediocre but they have creative and insightful approach to a given problem.

Emotional intelligence is another source of diversity among the workforce. Emotions are quite intricately woven into our relationships. It is the emotions and their effective and constructive sharing with others that define the depth and quality of our relationships. By extension, it is the awareness of these emotions and one’s ability to use them skillfully that profoundly influences our personal, social and professional success. In general terms, emotional intelligence is the ability to choose the right feelings appropriate to a given situation and the skill to communicate these feelings effectively. It is the emotional competency, which includes awareness of our own emotions, ability to identify and empathize with other’s feelings, understanding the impact of one’s emotions on others and sensitivity to cultural sanctions for expression of emotions that constitute emotional intelligence. An employee with high emotional intelligence is found to be more effective in sizing up people, pleasingly influencing them. While people with poor emotional intelligence may end up in dealing with colleagues as ‘robots’.
-         GRK Murty

[1] John E. Hunter, Frank L. Schmidt, and Michael E. Judiesch, “Individual differences in output variability  as a function of job complexity” Journal of Applied Psychology, 1990


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