Demographic change, the global marketplace, greater tolerance for differences, and govern-ment-sponsored programs are increasing the importance of diversity in the workplace. In the near future, more women, minorities, and people with different ethnic backgrounds and lifestyles will enter the workforce. Companies will face the same issues and problems public schools have been facing in understanding and utilizing the full range of human potential in a diverse population. Organizations that do not manage diversity effectively will not be able to utilize the full potential of their workers, nor to survive and grow under increasingly complex and competitive business conditions.
At the NCRVE site at the University of Illinois, we have been studying the status and trends of diversity initiatives in the workplace. This article discusses the major findings from our research, including the barriers to working with diversity, reasons for implementing diversity strategies, and the most effective initiatives. We conclude with an overview of trends in diversity, of special interest to human resource professionals.
Our major research method was in-depth, open-ended interviews with a panel of twelve diversity experts chosen for their experience working with companies on diversity initiatives, and for their publications and research in the field.
However, organizations which seek to correct a company bias against a particular group may define diversity more narrowly, according to their specific needs. Others argue that attempts to cover all differences may weaken current efforts to reduce racism and sexism in our society. No single definition can capture the broad range of differences diversity includes, the evolutionary nature of the process it represents, and the far-reaching impact it has on individuals and organizations.
We found that many barriers continue to restrict the opportunities of diverse groups. These barriers may be from the environment, such as discrimination or stereotyping, and from individuals, such as poor career planning or inadequate skill preparation. Both external and internal barriers can be equally detrimental to the advancement of diverse groups. External barriers may be more obvious than internal barriers, but minorities need to carefully assess and identify the barriers they set for themselves and work on resolving them.
Nonetheless, many internal barriers emerge as a result of external barriers. Since both types of barriers affect each other, it may be difficult to deal with them separately.
The impetus for diversity initiatives must come from awareness of the business implications: addressing the needs of workers, satisfying the demands of competitiveness, and fulfilling the requirements of the company's role in the community. Organizations are willing to accept change related to diversity only if the potential benefits are clear and worthwhile.
Perhaps the strongest rationale for incorporating diversity is to increase productivity among all workers, especially among groups that have historically been underrepresented and underutilized (such as women, people of color, people with physical disabilities, older workers, and gay or lesbian employees).
The experts we consulted said that the six best strategies for working with diversity are:
Training and education programs vary in style and content from organization to organization, and are heavily influenced by the organization's definition of diversity. All forms of training should include awareness-building, skill development, application, and support. Support is especially important, as numerous authors have acknowledged that potential benefits of training will not be likely to occur unless trainees return to a supportive environment for applying what they have learned.
No single approach to working with diversity can be recommended for all organizational situations. However, obtaining top management support, integrating diversity into all company functions, using a combination of strategies; and creating a corporate culture that supports diversity can be used with any approach to improve outcomes.
An effective diversity training program begins with identifying the specific organizational needs and culture. Every organization has a culture of its own, shaped by the people who founded it and staff it. And due to workforce makeup, diversity needs vary greatly; for example, a company in northern Illinois will have very different needs than a company in Miami, Tucson, or Los Angeles.
Our study indicates that effective diversity training is:
Organizations of the future must place more emphasis on valuing and managing diversity, or watch their productivity and competitiveness slip. A long-term perspective on diversity initiatives, together with integration with other organizational change efforts, will be needed. Diversity efforts should be linked to organizational needs and objectives through need assessments and evaluation. These efforts can substantially increase the company's productivity and profits over the long run.
More information is available from the following individuals at NCRVE, University of Illinois, 345 College of Education, Champaign, IL 61820: Rose Mary Wentling, (217) 333-0807, FAX (217) 244-5632, email@example.com or Mildred Griggs, (217) 333-0960, FAX (217) 333-5847, firstname.lastname@example.org
Rose Mary Wentling is an associate professor of Human Resource Development in the Department of Human Resource Education at the University of Illinois. She teaches graduate courses in diversity, strategic planning, and organization development. Her two major areas of research interest include diversity in education and the workplace and the career development and aspiration of women in management.
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