A Changing American Workplace
A Changing American Workplace
Over the past few decades, the American workplace has changed dramatically due to an increase in cultural diversity. Increasingly, jobs traditionally held by white males are being filled by African Americans, Mexicans, Japanese and other cultures, as well as by women. Because of this shift in the workforce, companies have been forced to train employees to be competent in handling cultural diversity. Not only do multi-ethnicities play a role in today’s workplace, but gender, age, sexual preference and disabilities must also be considered when trying to cultivate a positive work environment. The following will address some of those differences and how they affect job performance, ways in which to manage cultural diversity and tools that can be used to develop cultural diversity competencies.
Diversity training in companies with more than one hundred employees has grown tremendously since the early 1990s when fifty-six percent of large companies reported that they found diversity training a necessary tool for teaching people how to communicate effectively with co-workers. Today, most companies with more than one hundred employees insist on this training. According to Bernardo M. Ferdman and Sari Einy Brody, who wrote “Models of Diversity Training” in the “Handbook of Intercultural Training,” there are several reasons that this training is necessary. It provides a moral imperative. It addresses legal and social issues, and it promotes the success of the business. Diversity training provides knowledge and information, increases awareness and understanding, changes negative behaviors and helps employees develop necessary skills that enable them to work together to be more productive. These authors note that training varies from company to company and facilitator to facilitator, so what one learns in one training session may differ from what others learn in another company’s session.
While America has always been considered a melting pot, the differences associated with what is now such a diverse society have become more complex over time. “The definitions of diversity in specific organizations, however, can range from those focused on race, gender, ethnicity and other group-based categorizations to those that encompass individual differences, lifestyles and job functions (Models of Diversity Training, p. 284). Individual lifestyle choices have become a major issue in recent years, especially in the military. In previous years, gay men and women were banned from serving their country because of their sexual preferences. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy established by law enable gays to enter the military, but they were not allowed to discuss their sexual preferences. In essence, the law does not promote diversity, it simply allows people who are different from the expected norm to serve as long as they don’t express themselves or allow anyone to know that they are gay. While this law was a step forward in that gays could now serve in the military, it leaves no room for tolerance or understanding, two of the qualities necessary to perform competently in the workplace.
Historically, discrimination, whether it is sexual, racist or multigenerational, has been a part of the very fabric of the American workplace. A barrage of lawsuits has forced today’s companies to take steps to ensure that employees do not experience discrimination of any kind. Employees now have to face the fact that while freedom of speech is protected in the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of speech at home is not the same as freedom of speech at work. Today, political correctness in the workplace is imperative. Employees must watch their actions and speech and develop sensitivity to those with whom they work. Racial slurs and sexual advances are no longer acceptable in this culturally diverse workplace.
“Proponents of the moral imperative argue that it is incumbent on the beneficiaries of this historical pattern of oppression, discrimination and bias to truly level the playing field in a way more consistent with the values of liberty, equality and justice. Leveling the playing field involves, in part, heightening awareness of the inequities and recognizing, for example, how the experiences of people of color and of white women have differed from those of white men” (Models of Diversity Training, p. 285). What Ferdman and Brody are explaining in this text is that understanding the history of others is an important step to realizing what is appropriate in the workplace. For example, an African American man has heard the stories from his forefathers about how his people were treated in fields across the South. They were called inappropriate names and forced to do hard labor. Because of these memories, the African American man will be especially sensitive to any name calling or perceived disrespect.
Ongoing training that focuses on tolerance, understanding, respect, sensitivity and emotional intelligence has changed the behaviors, as well as the mindsets of many in the American workplace. These competencies promote a healthy work environment conducive to productivity. When employees study ways in which to work with others to overcome cultural differences and to cognitively understand how these differences can be used to help their company succeed, the aforementioned competencies become second nature over time. “With continued training, however, the identification with one’s chosen profession transforms enforced conformity into personal commitment to one’s profession. An appropriate analogy could be how a child while growing up internalizes the values of its parents, or how individuals voluntarily endorse the religion or worldviews of their cultural group (Multicultural Counseling Competencies: Assessment, Education and Training; Donald B. Pope-Davis and Hardin L. K. Coleman, p. 5).
One example of a diverse workplace which requires tolerance and understanding is the grocery chain, Albertson’s. This chain hires disabled and mentally challenged people who may not work as fast or efficiently as employees without handicaps. Those employees without handicaps must learn how to effectively work with those with handicaps. Yelling, teasing or other inappropriate behaviors toward those that are mentally or physically challenged in the workplace is strictly forbidden, while encouragement, understanding and tolerance go a long way toward helping employees with handicaps to perform better and to feel more comfortable when they are at work. Through working with handicapped people, Albertson’s is teaching its non-handicapped employees the competencies necessary to function in a culturally diverse workplace.
There are numerous options available for those who wish to learn strategies that will help them in today’s workplace. Enrolling in a training program is one option. Choosing a mentor who exemplifies these principles can also be very helpful. Employees can model their behavior after those who display these qualities or ask for situational coaching or advice on how to handle situations that arise in the workplace. Many companies have numerous organization comprising employees from different genders, age groups, races and sexual orientations. It could be helpful to join an organization different from the one that would typically define the employee. For example, a Generation X employee could join an organization whose membership is primarily composed of older employees, or a white woman could join a group of mostly African Americans. These options can provide great learning experiences and promote understanding of each other.
In The Four Skills of Cultural Diversity Competence: A Process for Understanding and Practice, the author, Mikel Hogan, describes ways through which employees can develop effective dialogue and resolve conflicts. I could use his Four Skills Model to modify my behavior. I like the idea of taking a self-test to determine my strengths and weaknesses and identify ways in which I can improve my skills in the workplace. I could also make one pie chart to illustrate problems those from different cultures may have and another to demonstrate proper responses to those problems. Through utilizing these tools, I will be better able to make a positive impact not only on my co-workers but also on my company.
As a member of a multicultural and global society, I feel it is my obligation to try harder to understand others—why people who are from other cultures or mindsets think or react the way they do. Each race and gender has perspectives based on their individual histories, their environment, the circumstances of their lives and the places where they were born. I have always believed that we can learn to appreciate the differences of others through understanding and respect if we are willing to open our minds to other perspectives. “The presence of cultural minorities might push the majorities into reconsidering and reshaping who they are. It is not self-evident that these majorities would be willing the change the way they perceive themselves. The wishes of the minorities and the expectations of the majorities set the scene for acculturation to take place” (Cultural Diversity: Its Social Psychology, Xenia Chryssochoou, p. xxvii). As Chryssochoou suggests in his book, the workplace is the greatest avenue for changes in thinking and perceptions to take place, as cultural diversity in the workplace forces people to change. When understanding is present, discrimination is diminished and productivity increases.
Chryssochoou, X. (2004) Cultural Diversity: Its Social Psychology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Ferdman, B. and Brody, S. (1996). Models of Diversity Training in D. Landis and R.S. Bhagat Handbook of Intercultural Training (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Hogan, M. (2007). Four skills of cultural diversity competence: A process for understanding and practice (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning. ISBN: 9780495007791.
Pope-Davis, D. and Coleman, H. (1996) Multicultural Counseling Competencies: Assessment, Education and Training. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.