Although the concept of “managing diversity” in the workplace has been known in the business world for some time, it is only recently that managing diversity has been recognized as a business priority in the United States, and increasingly, around the world. The change has come about for two reasons: business necessity and avoiding legal liability.
The business necessity has arisen because people, capital, and business are now almost limitlessly mobile. Workers, suppliers, investors, and, of course, consumers, no longer all come from the same village, the same country, or even the same continent. Thus, almost everyone in business has begun to experience the need to deal effectively with people, that is, customers, vendors, employees, co-workers and superiors who are “different” in a great many ways. Learning to understand, appreciate, and manage “difference” or diversity, has thus become a required capability. US businesses have learned this lesson the hard way: the story still circulates, for example, about the American car company that proudly unveiled its new car in South America, only to realize that the car’s name – “Nova” meant “doesn’t go” in Spanish.
As to the legal issue, although it may have started in the United States, one no longer has to look to the American courts to learn the high cost of failing to understand and appreciate diversity. Companies around the world are now learning, to their dismay, that employees and customers will not hesitate to look to the courts when they feel excluded from jobs, public access, or other opportunities because of their “difference.” The gender- based lawsuit against Morgan Stanley, described elsewhere in this newsletter, for example, has new resonance in the UK as a highly placed female former executive here is currently pursuing her £7.5 million claim against her employer who, she alleges, failed to manage difference properly. Among her allegations, for example, is that her male boss asked her to act as the “stewardess” on the company jet. Whatever the truth of the matter, if the boss did make that request, he almost certainly meant it as a joke – the problem is that the female manager saw it from a very different perspective.
The good news is that learning to manage diversity has turned out to be easier than originally thought. US businesses are experiencing a high level of success in helping managers learn this new capability. The key has been management education based on understanding diversity as something well beyond gender, race, or nationality. Rather, diversity is being understood, and explained to managers, as understanding that each employee, customer, or co-worker with whom one interacts is a product of many, and diverse, influences. Race, gender, and age play a part in “making the man”, of course, but so do factors such as education, work experience, life experience, and present circumstances. A male and a female employee of different races and nationalities, for example, may actually be more alike than different, for example, if they share a similar education, profession, work experience, are both parents, and commute to work. In short, the key to success is teaching managers that the concept of managing diversity is simply recognizing that each individual is different from oneself and all others. Managing diversity means managing to “difference” instead of trying to fits others into learned stereotypes or projecting one’s own experience and attitudes onto others. Thus understood, managing diversity is surprisingly easy and brings the side benefit of teaching managers to think in more global and critical terms.