In today's business environment, people are the most important source of sustained competitive advantage. Every person brings a unique combination of background, heritage, gender, religion, education, experience, etc to the workplace. Their diversity represents an enormous source of new ideas and vitality.
Unleashing and effectively using the productive talents, energy and creativity of a diverse workforce for maximum organisational effectiveness, is the fundamental goal of diversity management. Organisations are increasingly being built on intellectual capital rather than on buildings and machines.
Often costly misunderstandings are precipitated by managers and staff in general, failing to recognise and overcome stereotypes of each other. Prejudices and biases that are acted out by employees or managers threaten internal work team productivity and external customer satisfaction.
2. MANAGING DIVERSITY: A DEFINITION
Managing diversity can be defined as a planned, systematic and comprehensive managerial process for developing an organisational environment in which all employees, with their similarities and differences, can contribute to the strategic and competitive advantage of the organisation, and where no-one is excluded on the basis of factors unrelated to production.
One of the most common misconceptions about diversity is that it is really only Affirmative Action (AA) or Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) with a new name. Although this is not true, EEO, AA and diversity management are not mutually exclusive and can ideally support one another.
Outlining the differences, though, is critical in getting people to respond positively: EEO and AA serve social and moral purposes. Diversity management, on the other hand, serves economic purposes.
3. WHAT DOES DIVERSITY INCLUDE?
In general terms, diversity refers to the many ways in which people in organisations differ. These include: race, gender, age, physical ability, physical appearance, weight, height, marital status, sexual orientation, religion, personal background, nationality, cultural heritage, functional experience, occupational level, mental and physical challenges, family responsibilities, military experience, language facility, educational background, style differences, economic status, thinking patterns, political background, area of residence, IQ level, smoking preference, white/blue collar. In short: Diversity is all the ways in which we differ.
4. BENEFITS OF EMBRACING DIVERSITY
Effectively managed diversity will produce the following benefits:
" Increased employee self-awareness of biases, stereotypes, and prejudices
" Increased employee understanding and tolerance for people who are different
" Employees who are more flexible and able to deal with change
" A variety of approaches to thinking and problem-solving
" Maximised innovation and productivity on complex tasks
" Improved communication skills and the ability to work productively in teams
" Access to a range of competencies not previously available
" Increased flexibility, adaptability and pro-activity within the organisation
" Access to a diverse range of markets, customers, suppliers and distributors, translating into bottom line results
" External recognition as an employer of choice and accompanying recruiting advantage
" Increased knowledge of diversity issues (stereotypes and prejudices in the workplace)
" Fewer grievances, complaints and lawsuits; less staff turnover and absenteeism; cost savings
" Products and services that better meet customer needs
5. LINKING DIVERSITY TO BUSINESS STRATEGY
It is critical to the success of the diversity initiative that it be perceived as a business imperative and not a human resources initiative. It is important to establish a causal link between managing diversity and the organisation's profitability, where the focus is on tapping new markets, improving international business, and revitalising marketing, sales, and customer service strategies. In fact, diversity management may provide the competitive advantage in the ability to attract, train, and promote the best minds.
Diversity accountability should also be linked to everybody's job descriptions and to performance management in order to stimulate the behaviour the company wants to foster. Without this, the managing diversity process might never be taken seriously in an organisation.
Managers should also be willing to revamp policies, systems and practices as needed to enhance diversity. They should also assess diversity-related needs and resolve them; provide diversity awareness training, education and coaching to support desired goals and objectives; provide for and ensure necessary reinforcement and accountability in diversity areas.