As we continue to engage in a much overdo national conversation about racism and race inequality in America, those of us who work in or with organizations as DEI practitioners, are also thinking about how we can translate this momentum to address cultural diversity in the workplace. In this piece, I’ll attempt to outline a few ways folks responsible for DEI can more effectively manage cultural diversity in the workplace. These recommendations are just a few steps of many that can help us tackle institutionalized and systemic racism which bleeds into our organizations. Although the road ahead is long and arduous, I feel strongly that we must support leaders and give them the tools to navigate racial bias and better understand cultural diversity in the workplace.
What is Cultural Diversity?
Cultural diversity can be defined as a group of people from various racial backgrounds co-existing within a larger culture. While this sounds like a beautiful idea, it can be challenging to establish cohesiveness as this requires the dominant culture to make efforts to be inclusive, without being condescending or pandering.
In a society, the dominant culture is the shared culture of the largest and usually most powerful group. In the United States, for example, this group has historically been white, English-speaking people of European ancestry who hold a type of Judeo-Christian faith. As a result, this group enjoys a considerable amount of influence in establishing what is known as the hegemonic culture, or the social norms and expectations of a society. Today we see white culture represented heavily in many of our organizations, although there are always exceptions to this rule.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the boardroom. There are only four black CEO’s in the Fortune 500 and 3.2% in executive leadership positions. Statistics for other non-white groups are equally as disappointing, and the same goes for women and LGBTQ communities. Therefore, this isn’t a black or white issue per se, it is a dominant culture versus minority culture issue where we can see similarities and intersectionality in the disparate opportunities between these groups.
Leaders in organizations are tasked with creating a culture where everyone feels like they belong, regardless of their racial background, color of their skin or other identity demographics. Race has been a particularly challenging topic for organizations to address till now, but with the #Black Lives Matter movement similar to #MeToo, the door has opened for more transparent dialogue to truly look at the root causes of racial disparities.
What is cultural diversity management?
Therefore it’s important to look at how we can manage cultural diversity in the workplace. As a DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) consultant, it is important to note that building a culture of inclusion is one of the best ways to address disparities in cultural diversity, along with specific policies and procedures in place that prevent bias and unequal treatment from preventing minority communities from advancing. The tips that I will be sharing can be applied to all culturally diverse and less-represented groups, but for our purposes today I will be addressing this from a racial diversity lens.
1. Practicing Empathy
Having been born as first-generation Armenian-American, I can empathize with how it feels to be a minority. My first language was not English and I remember being confused when I entered pre-school. Throughout grade school, I was made fun of because I brought different food items to lunch than my peers. I was made fun of because of how I looked. From a young age, I was made to feel different and “less than” because of my cultural heritage and being labeled as “different.” This feeling of unworthiness and lack of self-esteem stayed with me well into my adulthood.
To be able to address cultural differences, we must first put ourselves in other’s shoes and ask ourselves what must it feel like to be different. What types of challenges might Black people face through no fault of their own besides the fact they happened to be born with different color skin? What does it feel like to be in the out-group versus the in-group? Jane Elliott, one of the world’s first diversity educators, teaches how it feels to be an outcast through her famous brown eyes vs blue eyes experiment that she conducted in the 1950’s when racial tensions were high in the US. When we talk about diversity in our workshops, we use introspective exercises that can help people relate to the feeling of being “left out” or “othered” in order to learn to empathize with how others feel on a daily basis when they are in the minority.
2. Respecting Differences & Allyship
Once we can empathize with the lived experience of others, in this case Black people, we can then begin to change our stereotypes and biases….and ultimately build policies and procedures that are more equitable. Teaching respect in the workplace is a key component to driving inclusive environments and we do this through exercises that show how having diverse perspectives and thought-processes can be beneficial and in many cases can drive innovation. Diversity feeds new ideas, creativity and out of the box thinking which are crucial to organizations that want to stay competitive and relevant in the market. Respect is shown through inclusive behavior and being mindful that others may not have the same privilege as you do. This could look differently depending on what your function is in the organization, but everyone can play a role in becoming aware of their own unconscious biases and recognizing how those biases impact the way they unintentionally sideline others. Learning how to use your privilege to benefit others who may not have the same opportunities is a great way to build allyship and begin shattering the invisible glass ceiling that exists for all minorities, in particular Black people who have been historically marginalized.
3. Micro-Aggressions vs Micro-Affirmations
When we subconsciously typecast people into our “in-group”- those that are in our trusted circle of safety or our “out-group”- those that fall out of that circle, we end up subtly treating people in each group differently. We might subtly and unconsciously hire someone who we have gone to business school with because they are in our in-group and we assume that we will get along with them and they will be easy to work with. These are called micro-affirmations, when we are “affirming” that that person is someone we trust and we can rely on. However, if I have a bias against people with piercings for instance, or African Americans, then if my peer is someone who falls in that category, I may subtly show that I’m not so comfortable in their presence. Maybe I won’t go out of my way to interact with them or perhaps I won’t smile or make as much eye contact when I do. The messages I am sending to this person, called micro-aggressions, eventually make them feel uncomfortable. I may not give them opportunities to work on projects I lead or I may not call on them in meetings. Therefore, I’m unconsciously putting them at a disadvantage, which, if left unchecked, can have negative consequences on their performance and their upward mobility inside the organization.
4. Creating Psychological Safety
Managers and leaders have a responsibility to ensure that people feel safe to contribute, speak up, voice their opinions and be authentic. In an experiment that was done at Google, it was shown that the main differentiator between high-performing teams and less performing teams was not IQ, background, experience or education of the team members, it was how well the manager of the team created a culture of psychological safety on the team. There’s some great books that have been recently published on this topic and we must do better when it comes to training people leaders on how to create safety, especially for culturally diverse groups. Not only will it lead to a culture of belonging, but research shows that it also drives better business results.
5. Rewarding Inclusive Behavior
One of the ways I believe companies often miss the mark on their diversity programs is that they are rarely tied to any sort of KPI’s or business objectives. In 2003, there was estimated $8 billion spent on diversity initiatives but we know that we still have a long way to go to close the gap when it comes to representation of historically underrepresented groups, including Black people. the bottom line is – you can’t just throw money at the problem and hope it goes away. Therefore, it’s time that businesses begin viewing diversity as a business imperative and tie inclusive behavior to performance reviews to incentivize and reward behavior change. As an executive coach, I know how hard it is for people to change, let alone a huge organization that is made up of different types of people. Therefore, we have to implement business strategies to begin treating diversity as seriously as we do other investments such as marketing, sales, operations etc.
Hopeful Time for Change in our Workplaces
In conclusion, to best manage culture diversity, we have to look at adapting new behaviors around how we treat people and create environments where people aren’t made to feel different because of their cultural background. We must be more sensitive to the lived experience of minority groups, especially Black people, and respect their unique challenges. Managers must upskill themselves on inclusive behaviors that create more respectful workplaces and organizations must incentivize and reward people for doing so.
I’m more hopeful than ever that we can collectively address systemic racism in our workplaces based on white hegemony and dominant culture which has largely marginalized Black and African-American communities in business. As DEI consultants, we must work together to support workplaces in their cultural diversity initiatives and programs and continue pushing the envelope when it comes to making the tough decisions and having the tough conversations that will lead to true systemic change.