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How to Build an Engaging and Diverse Working Environment

In his second look at diversity issues, Eric Shepherd reveals how you can make a more diverse work environment work for everybody

The case for workplace diversity is compelling. Organizations that encourage a more diverse workforce enjoy higher employee retention rates, innovation, and profitability. No wonder forward-looking organizations embrace diversity with genuine enthusiasm.

Sadly, diversity is harder to achieve than it sounds. Recruiting a diverse workforce representing various ethnicities and worldviews sets the stage for developing a competitive edge. The secret is to get people from disparate backgrounds to work together efficiently. Diversity and inclusion is a balancing act, where respect for diversity and embracing inclusion are equally important.

Organizations may find it takes time and effort to create a diverse culture where people are motivated to give their best. Right from initial recruitment and induction, business leaders may benefit by setting the tone that inclusiveness is a core value. With digital technology transforming the landscape, the HR function has to champion designing resources and processes to promote diversity and inclusion.

Organizations are broadly aware that diversity has to be prioritized at the very outset by designing recruitment processes that produce objective results. To do this, organizations must eliminate bias from job descriptions and create a fairer interview experience. These would be useful steps towards implementing diversity by keeping pace with expectations. Once a diverse team is in place, they can acknowledge that every workplace situation comes with its own challenges. In a fast-paced world, the decision to work across cultures and borders only magnifies these challenges.

Opportunities bring challenges. It would be worth considering some of the common issues facing a diverse workforce and how best to deal with them:

  • Empower voices: Colleagues from different cultures can be hesitant in voicing opinions. Some cultures are more hierarchical than others. Individuals from these cultures might not feel comfortable speaking up in front of their supervisors without being asked. On the other hand, staff from countries, where flatter hierarchical structures are the norm, might be comparatively more outspoken. By providing safe surroundings that empower all team members to weigh in will pay real dividends.

  • Confront negative stereotyping by discouraging non-diverse silos. Negative stereotyping may instigate prejudice, and make some employees disinclined to work with colleagues from certain cultures. This is a double whammy, lowering both morale and productivity. To prevent colleagues from different backgrounds from working in silos, activities that promote team integration should be encouraged. For example, a major airline chose to address the negative stereotypes that more mature employees held about their younger colleagues. A task force was established to embark on a reverse mentoring program that promoted intergenerational alliances.

  • Don’t get lost in translation. Greater diversity means there is a greater risk of messages between multicultural staff getting lost in translation. Apart from language barriers, multiracial colleagues may have widely different accents. Body language and non-verbal communication can also be an essential part of the message but can be easily misinterpreted or missed completely. Gestures and greetings that may be considered normal in one culture could be deemed offensive to others. Organizations can arrange for employees to be familiarized with these aspects in advance using communication aids such as infographics or videos.

  • Accommodate religious needs and cultural holidays. Accommodating a culturally diverse workforce might pose additional business and logistical costs. But that need not always be the case because there are cost-effective ways of making the workplace more welcoming. Existing space can be converted into a meditation or prayer room for employees belonging to different faiths. Cultural holidays can be marked with a symbolic observance or even more flexibility with time off granted for faith observance.

  • Respect formality differences, styles, and values. Working styles that vary across different cultures can compound differences. Sometimes different values can be compounded by the different degrees of formality that is expected. Divergent expectations around dealing with conflict, confrontation, and the number of hours worked can all become issues. How much group consensus is valued over independent individual contributions also depends on the individual’s values in play. To avoid misunderstandings, organizations can devise an enriching professional atmosphere with cultural sensitivity exercises. This can be formally incorporated into employee training programs.

To understand and collaborate with people from different backgrounds, we need to prioritize diversity and inclusion as a top-to-bottom strategy. If an organization is serious about this goal, it will provide training on the unconscious bias which will improve engagement. Unconscious bias is a difficult-to-deal-with pre-conceived notion that can interfere with impartial decision-making. When these notions are understood, they can be examined critically so that inclusive behaviors can be adopted. Training has been proved to be especially successful when coupled with action-oriented approaches.

A prime example of an action-oriented item is fostering inclusion during meetings. Our technology-driven world has made it simpler to reach out across the globe and time zones. Remote employees in distant time zones can be accommodated by alternating meeting times to accommodate their normal working hours. If there are employees who speak English as a second language schedule to attend a meeting they could be provided with meeting materials beforehand to allow for review before the meeting.

Leaders and managers can champion diversity and inclusion by making sure that workers feel safe about expressing their concerns. Employees should learn and be held responsible for results by linking goals related to integration into their appraisals. Concerns of underrepresented groups can be identified through an anonymous online survey.

The best way to start diversity and inclusion initiatives is to benchmark current values and beliefs before investing in changing them. Dealing with the challenges and opportunities offered by a diverse workforce cannot always be a linear process.