Frontline Supervisor: Diversity in the Workplace

Frontline Supervisor: Diversity in the Workplace

On 4 Nov 2015, in Frontline Supervisor

Each month, "The Balance Sheet" provides questions and answers from experts on a topic that's important to you as a manager. Please feel free to share this information with other colleagues who also manage people.

Q. We have a very diverse workplace, and I sometimes correct employees when I see them demonstrating poor tolerance of coworkers’ differences. I am not an expert on tolerance and bias, so can you offer some language, tips or “phrases” helpful in educating employees?

A. Education does help alter bias, but the bottom line is that employee behavior must conform to what is civil and supportive of your organization’s work goals. Let employees know that the goal of tolerance is a respectful workplace and that without it, the interests of the work organization are not served. When correcting employee behavior in the context of supervisory meetings, your goal should be to educate, not counsel or investigate the psychological influences of employee bias. Given that, the following can help your discussions be more effective. Key tolerance principles: 1) Look past differences of opinion, orientation, ethnic or racial backgrounds and, instead, focus on understanding a colleague’s views and perspective. 2) Avoid the trap of tuning out simply because someone talks or looks different. 3) Avoid labels. Monitor your speech patterns — and thinking style — to check whether you label others. 4) If you disagree with someone’s views, react with curiosity rather than defensiveness. Ask at least one earnest, nonthreatening question to dig for more information. Be willing to change your mind and expand your frame of reference. 5) Speak up when hurtful comments are overheard. 6) Reject intolerance when you see it demonstrated.

Q. How should supervisors view or understand diversity in the workplace and use it as a resource to support the organization’s mission?

A. Understand the business case for diversity in the workplace beyond it being simply the right thing to do. Diversity brings many benefits to the employer, including valued outcomes such as creativity, the generation of new ideas, discovery of solutions and the ability to market to a diverse world economy. Diversity facilitates healthy challenge of the status quo that naturally comes from those who have different social backgrounds. Keep inclusion in mind and you will maximize the usefulness of this phenomenon in supervision. Everyone wants to feel included, but you should view “inclusiveness” as the energy source or the mechanism that excites employees about making contributions to the organization. Welcome diversity and it will become a positive force to support your organization’s mission.

Q. Regarding diversity in the workplace, what is the purpose of educating employees to understand the cultural norms of foreign-born employees while training employees from other countries in the expectations of the cultural norms in the U.S.?

A. When training foreign-born, new workers to understand American customs, you will not eliminate manners of communication to which they are accustomed. And frankly, that is not the goal of diversity awareness. Although you will not expect your American employees to adopt or practice the cultural norms of another country, educating them about what they are reduces the likelihood of improper statements, harassment, miscommunication, tension and impersonal comments or questions that harm relationships between workers. So education works both ways. Body language, for example, varies widely among different cultures. Without some awareness training of your employees, how might they react, for example, to a coworker who does not smile back when greeted? For an interesting review of issues regarding personal space, touch, tone of voice, eye contact, silence, facial control and feedback, check out some of the resources at

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