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The challenges and opportunities of diversity in the workplace

There is no doubt that our country is a racial, cultural and religious melting pot – and with 11 official languages, it’s easy for things to get lost in translation! It’s little wonder, then, that navigating the potentially rocky terrain of diversity and inclusion in the workplace can be daunting.

In South Africa, workplace diversity is mandated by law and many businesses have adopted a largely compliance-driven approach. But there are several other benefits to having a diverse workforce – not just being able to keep the doors open. It allows self-awareness, empathy, innovation and creativity to flourish. Knowing who we are as individuals and how our views converge with others can foster a healthy level of relatedness and compassion, especially when we find common ground with others who appear at first to be completely different from us.

 

In fact, research done by Deloitte & Touche shows that the most diverse and inclusive companies are six times more likely to innovate, six times more likely to anticipate change and twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets. Why? Because being made up of employees who better reflect and understand the diversity of the market, these companies have created a culture that embraces new ideas, and as a result are better able to attract and retain top talent.

 

The power of diversity

 

Businesses need diverse perspectives because while similarities can be useful for creating a cohesive culture within a team, they can also fuel apathy, boredom and ultimately the end of teamwork. This may sound counterintuitive, but people with common experiences and backgrounds tend to create an environment of group think, which is the enemy of innovation and creativity.

It is therefore extremely valuable to have diverse perspectives that shake up that conformity of thought. In addition, if a business consists of a homogeneous team, how can it ever fully understand all its customers’ needs?

Understanding diversity in the workplace

Diversity can be defined as the range of differences in human demographics including race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and age. In the South African context especially, there are various additional factors that come into play, such as vastly different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds.

Businesses face the challenge of understanding and respecting different cultures and beliefs – and dealing with the consequences when differences cause conflict in the workplace. Diversity can create tension if someone who is different is perceived as threatening in any way, as a result of a lack of understanding. Well-managed differences can actually be the bridge to building a sense of trust, though a level of transparency and a willingness to share and learn is needed.

Creating a strong culture within a diverse workforce

Many companies have found that establishing a shared company culture that each employee can feel a part of works well. A good idea is to develop a list of agreed-upon values and behaviours that must be adhered to by all members of the company. Some businesses create a company ‘formula’ made up of the top-line issues (strengths) and bottom-line issues (potential pitfalls) unique to the business and its workforce. When this has been formulated and agreed upon by all members of the team, it becomes an incredibly powerful and unifying tool because each employee lives by the company code – and everyone is equally accountable to it, regardless of their background or position.

Addressing conflict in diverse teams

Conflict will come up occasionally, though, and maintaining a harmonious working environment is an ongoing – and often uncomfortable – process. It’s necessary for employees and even managers to constantly question their own (often subconscious) assumptions and judgements. For example, just because you are a woman does not mean that you don’t harbour damaging biases about women, such as labelling a woman as aggressive if she is an assertive communicator whereas the same communication style coming from a man would not register as negative in the same way.

Similarly, women in positions or industries which are typically male dominated might come across discrimination directed at them that is often so subtle that it’s tricky to tackle: being interrupted or talked over, being ‘mansplained’ to, being assigned ‘office housework’ or having their clothes or hair openly discussed by a room full of men could be some examples. It is important to address any form of discrimination or conflict stemming from diversity immediately and managers should be informed of the laws and the correct procedures to follow in these situations.

Leading the way in diverse workspaces

Educational programmes can also be very helpful in creating tolerance and understanding, and provide essential tools to create a healthy and balanced working environment. Production Management Institute of Southern Africa offers a one-day Cultural Diversity and Business Etiquette workshop that equips participants with practical skills for effective cross-cultural communication and the interpersonal communication skills to build trust and respect amongst team members, while the Managing Workplace Diversity short learning programme helps managers deal with disagreements and conflicts arising from diversity in a unit.

Ultimately, diversity can only be truly successful when it creates inclusion for each employee within the organisation – regardless of their background or culture. Meredith Morales, Senior Program Manager of Inclusion Recruiting, Innovation and Solutions at LinkedIn believes that creating a feeling of belonging is a crucial element of diversity in the workplace that many companies miss: “What companies should really strive for is to create an environment where people feel like they belong. If you have a culture in which people feel like they don’t belong, connect or succeed as their authentic selves, then your company will have an employee population that’s not giving you the best of them.”

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