Cultural Diversity impacts the workplace in a variety
of positive and negative ways. Examining how
communication is affected by this diversity.
Today's workforce is truly mixture of different races, ages, genders, ethnic groups, religions and lifestyles (Mor-Barak, 2005). It is the job of the management of the organisation to fit together different pieces of mosaic in a harmonious, coordinated way and utilising the abilities and talents of each employee to its maximum. If skilfully managed, diversity can bring a competitive advantage to an organisation. If not, however, the bottom line can be negatively affected and the work environment can become unwelcoming (Henderson, 2001). Many organisations have recognised that the workforce is changing and they are working to create a work environment in which diversity and difference are valued and in which employees can work to their fullest. They are dealing with the problems that arise when people in the workplace communicate. Businesses must be aware of the impact of cultural diversity on important business factors especially communication and the degree of the effect of cultural diversity on it (Henderson, 2001).
People and the organisation:
Today's workforce is made up of many types of people. Organisations can no longer assume that every employee has similar beliefs or expectations. Organizations exist to serve human needs. An organisation is only effective as the people who operate it. People are considered the most important resource in any organisation (Mor-Barak, 2005). They are the basic foundation of an organization and the basic unit of change within organisation. The human resource approach focuses on the interaction between people and the organization. If communication between employees is poor, organisation will suffer. When coordination and interaction within the organisation is good, both employees and business will benefit.
Culture is an important dimension of group diversity that influences communication. Culture is the integrated system of beliefs, values, behaviours and communication patterns that are shared by those socialized within the same social group. Cultural diversity is the variety of human societies or cultures in a specific region, or in the world as a whole. It is also referred to multiculturalism within an organization (Konard et al. 2006). Obvious cultural differences exist between people, such as language, dress and traditions, there are also significant variations in the way societies organize themselves, in their shared conception of morality, and in the ways they interact with their environment (Henderson, 2001).
Diversity in the Workplace:
Workplace diversity refers to the division of the workforce into distinction categories that have a perceived commonality within a given cultural or national context and that impact potentially harmful or beneficial employment outcomes such as job opportunities, treatment in the workplace and promotion prospects, irrespective of job related skills and qualifications (Stockdale and Crosby, 2004). Diversity can be defined differently by different cultures and organisations. A view of business, organisation and human resource literature produced three types of definitions of diversity: Narrow category-based definition (e.g. gender, racial or ethnic differences); broad category-based definition (e.g. a long list of categories including such variables as marital status and education); and conceptual rule definition that is based on variety of perspectives, differences in perceptions and actions (Thiederman, 2008). Some of the distinction categories may either have a positive or negative impact on employment and job prospects in different countries (Albrecht, 2001). Against the backdrop of broad definitions, on the one hand, and the narrow ones on the other, generating a definition of workplace diversity that will be relevant and applicable in different cultures proves to be a challenge. Workplace diversity focused on the similarities and differences of the people that they bring to an organization. It is usually defined broadly to include dimensions which influence the identities and perspectives that employees have such as profession, education and geographic location. As a concept, diversity is considered to be inclusive of everyone (Albrecht, 2001). Diversity initiatives create the workplace environment and organizational culture by making differences work. It is about teaching and learning from others who are different, it is about dignity and respect for all, and about creating workplace environments and practices that encourage learning from others and capture the advantage of diverse perspectives. Most scholars agree that diversity in the workplace utilizes employee skills to the fullest and contributes to the overall growth and prosperity of the organisation. It is based on the idea identities should not be discarded or ignored, but instead, should be maintained and valued (Henderson, 2001).
Increasing cultural diversity is forcing organisations to learn and motivate people with a broader range of value systems. To succeed in managing workforce that is increasingly diverse and multinational, managers need knowledge about cultural differences and similarities among people from different backgrounds (Golembiewski, 2000). They also need to be sensitive to these differences that can contribute to their effectiveness in cross cultural communication. In today's global business world, a manager has to understand cultural differences and their meanings in business relations. The manager who manages diversity should understand that diversity includes every employee. It is a challenge to successfully apply skills, energy, and commitment of employees to make an organization better. It is of primary importance that the manager understands the cultural beliefs and values of the organisation for effectively managing diversity (Golembiewski, 2000). These beliefs and values group together to create an environment that employee perceive as supportive or not supportive of diversity. Within all organizations there are culturally supportive and non supportive people, policies, and informal structures. Managers should carefully plan and implement organisational systems and practices to manage employees so that the potential advantages of diversity are maximised and disadvantages minimized (Jackson, 1999). It should be the policy of the company not to engage in discrimination against or harassment of any person on the basis of race, colour, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, pregnancy, physical or mental disability, ancestry, marital status, age, sexual orientation or citizenship. This policy apply to all employment practices, including recruitment, selection, promotion, transfer, merit increase, salary, training and development, demotion, and separation (Henderson, 2001).
The organisations need to understand and accept cultural and communication differences, show respect, empathise and be flexible to communication issues in the workforce environment. It should be knowledgeable about ethical issues and understand values, communicate decisions regarding these issues to employees and keep communication channels open for all employees to feedback information without fear and revenge. Organisation should adapt the policies that directly or indirectly affect the diversity issues (Griffin and Hirsch, 1998). It is important how the organisation addresses and responds to problems that arise from diversity. It must reflect its stance on diversity in its mission statement. If the mission statement articulates a clear and direct commitment to diversity, everyone who comes into contact with that mission statement will grow to understand and accept the importance of diversity. Organisations can also manage diversity through a variety of ongoing practices (Jackson, 1999).
Impacts of diversity on workplace environment:
Workplace diversity provides strengths as well as offer challenges to the organisation. Cultural diversity is meaningful. It helps employees to learn from each other, to understand each other's differences (Griffin and Hirsch, 1998). Cultural diversity affects the businesses in many ways including the staff recruitment/retention, management styles and decision-making processes, and relationships within organizations. Cultural diversity often improves and develops workplace by helping as learning experiences for employers as well as employees. When an organisation embrace diversity and realize its benefits, it can succeed and compete more effectively (Henderson, 2001). When it actively assess the handling of workplace diversity issues, develop and implement diversity plans, it can increase its adaptability. Different employees bring individual talents and experiences and suggest suggesting flexible ideas in adapting to ever changing markets. An organisation can globally provide service with a diverse collection of skills and experiences. Organisations that encourage workplace diversity in inspire all of their employees to perform to their highest ability. Different strategies are then executed; resulting in higher productivity, profit, and return on investment (Konard et al. 2006).
On the other hand, diversity issues costs money, time and efficiency. If not managed properly it can create problems. Some of the consequences can include unhealthy tensions between employees or with management; loss of business performance and productivity because of increased conflict; inability to attract and retain talented people of all kinds; complaints and legal actions; and inability to retain valuable employees, resulting in lost investments in recruitment and training (Stockdale and Crosby, 2004). Taking full advantage of the benefits of diversity in the workplace is not without its challenges. Perceptual, cultural and language barriers need to be overcome for diversity programs to succeed. Ineffective communication of key objectives results in confusion, lack of teamwork, and low morale. There are always employees who will refuse to accept the fact that the social and cultural makeup of their workplace is changing. The "we've always done it this way" mentality silences new ideas and inhibits progress (Albrecht, 2001).
Although cultural diversity presents a challenge, organisations should view it as an opportunity rather than a limitation. When managed properly, cultural diversity can provide competitive advantages for an organisation. An organisation that manages diversity properly can develop cost advantages over other organisations and are in much better position to attract the best personnel. Proper guidance and management of diversity can improve the level of creativity in an organisation (Henderson, 2001).
Diversity in the workplace is strategic force influencing communication (Samovar et al. 2008). Communication in its most basic form is defined as the use of symbols to convey meanings. Culture is the integrated system of beliefs, values, behaviours and communication patterns that are shared by those socialized within the same social group. When persons socialized in different cultures and co-cultures look from the same point in same direction, they often see different things, and these different perceptions shape their communication (Samovar et al. 2008). Being different from others in an organisation can adversely affect communication and coordination. People from different cultures bring different set of assumptions about appropriate ways to coordinate and communicate in an organisation. Understanding how to communicate effectively with people from other cultures has become integral to the work environment of many organisations (Samovar et al. 2009). Managers who manage diversity need to be sensitive to cultural differences that can contribute to the effectiveness in cross cultural communication. Cross cultural communication involves several potential barriers to communication that are related to the use of verbal and non-verbal methods to convey meanings that may or may not be the same in the cultures of origin of the participants (Samovar et al. 2008). Often the message that is communicated, maybe different from the one that was intended because of cultural barriers. The use of different languages often creates barrier to communication because one or both sides are not articulate as they could be in their native tongue. Linguistic diversity is an important aspect of global diversity. Managing a workforce that does not share a common language can present a major challenge to both employees and management (Cragon and Wright, 2008).
Factors effecting communication:
Cultural diversity can have a powerful effect on communication within the organisation. Problems occur between people of different cultures primarily because people tend to assume that their own cultural norms are the right ways to do things. They wrongly believe that the specific patterns of behaviour desired in their own culture are universally valued. They have stereotypes about other cultures that interfere with communication when people interact. Workplace diversity can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications, but it also poses opportunities to improve both workers and organisations. Managers must be prepared to communicate effectively with workers of different cultural backgrounds. A diverse workforce poses various communication challenges to an organisation.
Misunderstandings, inaccuracies, inefficiencies and slowness are typical communication problems experienced by diverse groups. Communication breakdowns occur when members often assume that the other party understands the message when in fact they do not. People interpret information differently even when the same language is used. Therefore, the message sent is not always the message received. Differences in communication styles and non verbal communication can create problems. Communication problems due to diversity may become magnified because people are afraid or otherwise unwilling to discuss openly about the issues. Trust is an important factor that plays a significant role in intercultural, interracial and inter-gender communication. A lack of trust can result in miscommunication. Accent is another factor creating problems in communication as some people react negatively to different accents. It is even considered rude if someone does not speak in the official language. People make judgements and mental picture (stereotypes) about others based on the kinds of expression they use because of the region (regional jargon) from which they come. The fact that people have different experiences accounts for many of the problems that occur when they try to interact cross culturally. These experiences directly relate to ability to communicate. Cultural, racial and gender differences affect our experiences.
Henderson, G. (2001), Cultural Diversity in the workplace: issues and strategies, Praeger Publishing.
Mor-Barak, M. (2005), Diversity: toward a globally inclusive workplace, SAGE Publishers.
Golembiewski, R.T. (2000), Managing diversity in organisation, University of Alabama Press.
Jackson, S.E. (1999), Diversity in the workplace: Human Resource Initiatives, Guilford Press.
Griffin, R and Hirsch, M.S. (1998), Workplace diversity, Adams Media.
Konard, A. Prasad, P. and Pringle, J. (2006), Handbook of workplace diversity, SAGE Publishrs.
Stockdale, M. and Crosby, F. (2004), The psychology and management of workplace diversity, Wiley-Blackwell.
Thiederman, S. (2008), Making diversity work: 7 steps for defeating bias in the workplace, Kaplan Publishing.
Albrecht, M.H. (2001), International HRM: managing diversity in the workplace, Wiley-Blackwell.
Samovar, L.A; Porter, R.E. and McDaniel, E.R. (2008), Intercultural Communication: A Reader (12th edition), Cengage Learning
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Differences in culture contribute to the rich vibrancy of America's own unique culture. These differences can present challenges in the workplace, however. People's communication styles and ways of relating to others are influenced by their cultural heritage. Religious beliefs are another cultural factor which can create issues in the workplace. Understanding these cultural differences goes a long way towards resolving them.
Confrontation vs. Consensus-Building
An individual's cultural background has many effects on his style of communication. Marc Diener, author of Deal Power, explained some of these effects in his July 2003 Entrepreneur article, Culture Shock. He said that the Japanese have 19 different words for "no;" all have slight but significant differences in meaning. Diener also said the Japanese do not like direct confrontation. This is a quality common to Asian cultures, according to John Hooker of Carnegie Mellon University. Asian cultures prefer to build consensus, achieve harmony and avoid embarrassing others by direct criticism, and are especially disinclined to criticize employees in front of a group. Western culture's tendency toward directness and straight talk can be seen as rude and abrupt by people from other cultures.
High-Context vs. Low-Context
Hooker, referencing Edward T. Hall, author of The Silent Language and Beyond Culture, says a culture's communication tends to be high-context or low-context. Low-context communication, favored by Western European-based cultures, relies on explicitly spelling out instructions, rules, directions and expectations. Much importance is attached to following these instructions as ordered. High-context communication relies on relationships with other people to explain societal rules and expectations; in other words, high-context communication relies on others to "show you the ropes." With high-context communication, employees expect supervisors to personally enforce important rules. An employee from a culture accustomed to high-context communication benefits more from a supervisor's or fellow employee's direct instruction, while an employee used to low-context communication could just as well absorb the information from a training manual or other written materials.
Religion and the Workplace
Religion, an integral part of culture, can become an issue in the workplace. For example, different religious groups celebrate different holidays. During December, many cultures celebrate significant holidays: Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus at Christmas; Jewish people celebrate Hanukah, the Festival of Lights; Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice; and other cultures have their own holidays. Respecting the cultural differences of employees is important when planning holiday parties or otherwise recognizing holidays, as well as throughout the year. Different cultures also attend worship services on different days of the week. When reasonable accommodations are made (such as adaptable work schedules), these issues do not need to become problems.
About the Author
Janet Clark has written professionally since 2001. She writes about education, careers, culture, parenting, gardening and social justice issues. Clark graduated from Buena Vista University with a degree in education. She has written two novels, "Blind Faith" and "Under the Influence." Clark has received several awards from the Iowa Press Women for her work.
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