Diversity and Teams

For the general public it has become verbal shorthand for a workforce that is multiracial, multi cultural, and multiethnic – which means it comes pre-loaded with people’s own individual perceptions and biases. For human resource managers, it has become a kind of semantic umbrella that encompasses an assortment of HR programs. Senior management and managers of other functions tend to use the word more generally, but they too are essentially referring to workforce demographics.
I think it’s time to look at diversity in a new light. Diversity applies not only to a company’s people concerns, but too many other critical areas as well. It refers to any mixture of items characterized by differences and similarities. Simple enough, on the surface. But like many simple notions, its implications are significant. If we are to put it into operation, we must fully understand what it means. Diversity is not synonymous with differences, but encompasses differences and similarities.
Because we are so accustomed to thinking of diversity in terms of workforce demographics, and equating it with the minority constituencies in the workforce, we tend to think diversity means the qualities that are different. Therefore, even when people expand the concept of diversity to include the whole range of strategic issues, people still tend to focus on the differences. But the definition includes not only differences but also similarities.

This distinction is crucial. It means that when making managerial decisions you no longer have the option of dealing only with the differences or similarities present in the situation, instead, you must deal with both simultaneously. One way of looking at this is to think in terms of a macro-micro continuum. A micro perspective looks at the individual component and a macro perspective looks at the mixture. To get at the true nature of diversity (comprising differences and similarities) requires an ability to assume both perspectives simultaneously; the micro facilitates identification of differences, and the macro enhances the ability to see similarities.
Diversity refers to the collective mixture of differences and similarities along a given dimension. When you are dealing with diversity you are focusing on the collective picture, not just pieces of it. Ex. (To highlight this notion of mixture, visualize a jar of red jelly beans; now imagine adding some green and purple jelly beans. Many would believe that the green and purple jelly beans represent diversity. I suggest that the diversity instead is represented by the resultant mixture of red, green, and purple jelly beans. It is easy to see these jelly beans as a metaphor for employees. Of course, it works equally well as a metaphor for any other aspect of the organization that you might be concerned with. It could as easily represent a mixture of product lines, functions, marketing strategies, operating philosophies and so on.
The component elements in diversity mixtures can vary, and so a discussion of diversity must specify the dimensions in question. The components of a diversity mixture can be people, concepts, concrete items, or abstractions. If you are reflecting on the many ways your employees can vary (by race, gender, age, education, sexual orientation, geographic origin, or employment tenure), that’s a mixture whose components are people, individuals categorized along multiple dimensions. In that mixture, the components are known as organizational units or functions. One may argue that functions are composed of individuals, which is true, but the general manager of multiple functions does not experience this as a mixture of people but rather as a mixture of organizational units.
The diversity management process is versatile enough to deal with many problems. It is also powerful enough to deal with more than one at the same time. Once a supervisor can master the use of the diversity management process he/she can quickly apply it to various situations. Within this process a supervisor should get a clear explanation of the problem, analyze the diversity mixture, check for diversity tension and review the action options. Once the supervisor has figured out the essence of the problem, they can choose one or more the available actions that seem to offer the best hope of solving the problem.
Suggestions for managing diversity in the workplace would be to make sure the organization’s policy on discrimination and harassment is posted in a prominent, visible place in the department or elsewhere, discuss diversity issues at department meeting with employees and provide examples of behaviors that are unacceptable and that will not be tolerated, as well as consequences of violations. Whenever an employee alleges discrimination or harassment, investigate the matter thoroughly and identify the appropriate course of action and also seek assistance from higher management or the director of human resources, if needed.
If a matter cannot be resolved at the supervisory level, expeditiously report the case to the director of human resources or other such person who is designated to handle discrimination complaints at the company or corporate level, but in no way react negatively or adversely to an employee who has filed a discrimination or harassment charge. Last but least always supervise on a scrupulously fair and objective basis and with equitable performance standards and try to find ways by which all employees have the same or comparable opportunities at work assignments and training and development programs.
Diversity is big. It’s big everywhere. Schoolchildren are taught to celebrate it; high courts weight and scrutinize it; corporate personnel offices assiduously seek it out; unions that once feared it now robustly champion it; artists offer searching introspections of diversity in their own lives; museums exhibit it. Diversity is enunciated in the dolls we buy for our children (the American Girl collection), the fashions teenagers buy for themselves (think of the “United Colors of Benetton”, ads, featuring lots of contrasting flesh tones), and in the admissions brochures of the colleges and universities those teens hope to attend. It plays its part in every electoral campaign for every candidate and in the sales pitches for a great many products. The pursuit of diversity is held to be both practically good and personally redemptive; and diversity is depicted in the popular entertainment as both fun and there is no better word for it – virtuous. (Wood pp- 207-209)
Works Cited
Cox, T., & Beale, R. (1997) Devoloping Competency to Manage Diversity. California Berret-Koehler “Hottentot Race, A Bosjesman Lad.”From Charles Pickering, The Races of Man and Their Geographical Distribution (New York: Leavitt & Allen, 1850), pp. 226-27. Greer, C., & Plunkett, W. (2003) Supervision, Diversity and Teams in the Workplace New Jersey, Prentice Hall Lancaster, L., & Stillman, D. (2002) When Generations Collide: Who they are.

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