What Difference Do Differences Make?

Posted: September 29, 2011 in Diversity, Organization Culture

From Layoutsparks.comOf course my favorite answer is “it depends.”   There is no shortage of phrases or statements on company websites that promote the benefits of differences in the workforce. To be effective and realize the benefits though, the workplace needs to have programs and processes in place to leverage these differences. More simply said, a diverse workforce also requires inclusive workplace.

So what differences are we talking about?   While various descriptors can be found on company websites, the best measure of desired differences shows up in hiring practices. Based on my own experience, the primary focus areas are Male/Female and White/Minority.  Even  though some Equal Opportunity Employer statements are very specific:  “…race, religion, color, sex, age, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, marital status, citizenship status, veteran status or other legally protected characteristics;”  I have never seen targets that include religion, marital status, sexual orientation, or any other less obvious characteristic.

Okay, so in an attempt to hire and promote a diverse workforce, organizations use “surface-level diversity” factors, which refer to observable attributes.  Even using only these two factors, probabilities kick in to encompass differences in the less apparent  factors.

So what difference do these surface-level differences make?  Below are some of the advantages and challenges. I say “some” because it is not an all-inclusive list.

Surface-Level Diversity Differences

Advantages

Challenges

  • Their existence provides evidence of equal opportunity employment practices.
  • Potential hires view the organization as more representative.
  • When addressing more complex tasks and problems, the differing viewpoints, ideas, experiences, etc., can provide higher quality solutions.

Note: Knowledge work has been on the rise for quite some time resulting in more complex work.

  • Based on similarity-difference issues, teams in their early stages may feel a negative impact, but these tend to disappear as members learn more about each other.
  • When addressing simple problems or tasks, the broad range of viewpoints becomes more of a hindrance.
  • Fault lines can occur in diverse groups when informal subgroups form based on similarities.  Research has shown that the potentially detrimental effects of subgroups can be offset with training and awareness that teams may benefit from their diversity.

I talked with an HR Director in a US company who was concerned about a group of male Chinese scientists and technical professionals that continually hung out together in the research facility and only spoke their language.  So, is this good or bad?  A better question may be “In what ways in this good and bad?   It’s not the intent of this post to answer that question, but rather to incite thinking about how to discern the positive and negative impacts of surface-level differences.

There are numerous models that demonstrate the range and depth of differences in individuals.  I chose to use the “text book” terms of surface-level and deep-level diversity for simplicity.  In part 2, we’ll explore the latter and how those differences are viewed. What do you think, “desirable or not?”

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