Workplace Diversity - More Diverse Than Ever

By Noreen S. Kirk

If you’ve been in the business world for a while, you may remember when people first started talking about workplace diversity. Back then, the term typically referred to the growing number of African-Americans and women in the workforce. But fast-forward into the 21st century, and it’s clear that “diversity” is more diverse than it used to be.

In Connecticut and across America, the labor force is evolving into an ever richer mosaic of people representing a variety of nations, cultures, religions, languages and perspectives. There is power in this workplace diversity, and companies that harness it can gain a competitive edge in the global marketplace. That’s why smart employers will want to give some serious thought to managing this increasingly heterogeneous workforce effectively.

The changing workforce

Foreign immigration is a major factor in the changing composition of the workforce. A recent study by Northeastern University showed that for the period 2000 to 2005, immigrants made up 63% of the country’s labor force growth — an all-time high. Southern New England felt the effects, too. For the same period, new foreign immigration accounted for all of the labor force growth in Connecticut and virtually all of it in New England.

These new immigrants are important to Connecticut’s economy. Along with other Northeastern states and states in the Midwest, Connecticut is experiencing a decline in working-age population as baby boomers retire and many younger, native-born workers relocate out of state. The jobs they’re vacating are increasingly being filled by foreign immigrants.

“Connecticut needs to have its arms wide open to new immigrants,” says Mark LeClair, professor of economics at Fairfield University. “Our ability to maintain a manufacturing sector in the state is going to be dependent on our use of this new immigrant labor.”

Immigrants play an important role in other sectors, too. Alice DeTora, a partner in the Hartford office of Robinson & Cole, says, “Companies are hiring more foreign nationals, particularly in high-technology industries like biopharmaceuticals and biotechnology. That’s where we’re really lacking talent and relying heavily on foreign nationals.”

Foreign immigration contributes to workplace diversity, but it’s not the only factor, says Peter Francese, director of demographic forecasting for the New England Economic Partnership. “Today, diversity is in attitudes,” Francese says. “It’s more about psychographics than demographics.”

He says today’s workers’ priorities differ in key ways from those of earlier generations.
“A significant number of people in today’s workforce want only money and time,” says Francese. “These are people who say, ‘I’ll work three days a week, and that’s all. I have a life.’ Employers have to be flexible in this regard.”

Another priority for today’s workers is the ability to do interesting work and learn new skills that enable career advancement. Francese says employers would be wise to provide these learning opportunities.

The employer’s approach

Nancy Haas is president of Newtown-based Haas Consulting Services, which specializes in human resources issues. She, like Francese, espouses a broader view of workplace diversity.

“We have to understand that diversity is not just race and gender,” Haas says. “It also includes age, economic status, education — everything that makes up each individual as a person.”

Even with so much workplace diversity, employers who take a smart approach can get everyone working together toward the same goals, Haas says.

“You have to set a foundation for people to respect each other,” Haas says. “This leads to understanding and awareness. You do this through education, constant communication and making sure that senior management ‘walks the talk.’ Management has to show by example that they celebrate the diversity of the organization — culture, age, experience and more,” says Haas.

Some of her clients highlight the cultural workplace diversity through special activities such as inviting people to bring in ethnic dishes to share or use pins to mark their countries of origin on a world map. These activities increase cultural awareness and help employees get to know each other as individuals.

“Stereotypes build up a communication wall,” Haas says. “A company can break these down through education. When you have employees who feel comfortable in the workplace, they’re going to be much more productive.”

Haas says that, today, it’s especially important for employers to clearly communicate business strategies and goals.

“The younger generation wants to know, ‘Why?’” she says. “If an employee knows what the strategy is and what their role in it is, you have a much more interested employee who’s working with you toward goals and objectives. If you don’t keep them challenged, you’re going to lose them.”

Fostering understanding and collaboration in the diverse workplace has its challenges, but it’s a smart business strategy, says Peter Bye, president of MDB Group Inc. in Livingston, N.J., and a member of the Workforce Diversity Panel of the Society for Human Resource Management.

“Research shows that a diverse workforce has a richer range of knowledge about an idea and brings understanding of a wider range of market segments,” Bye says. “Innovation, creativity and the productivity potential of a diverse team [are] far greater than [those of] a monocultural team.”

Legal and other considerations

While a diverse, well-managed workforce is a business asset, the wide mix of cultures and backgrounds can present legal issues employers must deal with, many of them centering on complaints of discrimination in the workplace.

“More and more, we’re finding reasonable-accommodation issues arising,” says Colin Munro, a partner in the Stamford office of the law firm of McCarter & English LLP.

One example offered by Richard Voigt, a partner in the firm’s Hartford office, concerns scheduling around different religions’ Sabbath days and holidays.

“The employer is under a duty to reasonably accommodate religious beliefs,” Voigt says. To be reasonable, an accommodation “doesn’t have to be the accommodation requested by the employee. Employers should describe the hours of the job up front and, if no reasonable accommodation is possible, make clear to the employee that working these hours is a requirement of the job. In assessing whether a reasonable accommodation is possible, the employer should be open to considering employee shift swaps or other schedule adjustments worked out between employees.”

Language can be a trouble spot, too. English-speaking workers may feel excluded when other groups talk among themselves in their native language. Some employers see the use of languages other than English as undermining teamwork and good morale and have instituted English-only rules.

“These have not been well received by the courts,” Voigt says. “There has to be a legitimate business reason for it. The courts have viewed the morale issue as too speculative.”

Other questions may come up regarding employees’ wearing of turbans or chadors, religious observances in the workplace, speaking accents, and more. But Voigt says that the biggest issues in the diverse workforce are complaints about “glass ceilings” and discriminatory treatment.

“Employers should be monitoring how promotions are playing out and should, through training and appropriate planning, try to make opportunities as broadly available as possible. They should ensure that the decision-making process is as objective as possible and that their nondiscrimination policies are structured correctly and are part of the fabric of the organization,” Voigt notes.

Workplace diversity in action

At Rand-Whitney Containerboard LLP in Montville, workplace diversity is just a way of life, says Human Resources and Safety Manager Roberta Hublard.

The company, which employs just over 100 people, includes African-Americans, Hispanics, one Ukrainian and an Indian (who is multilingual). Although the paper industry typically attracts mostly men, the company also has several women, one in a nontraditional role.

“When we’re recruiting people, we don’t recruit for a minority or non-minority, but for a certain skill set,” Hublard says. “The person who comes in with that skill set is the person we’re going to hire. And if they have the skill set, they are just totally accepted. Their ethnicity or race or gender or age doesn’t even matter.”

The employees are organized into crews, four of which work on the paper machine and two that are responsible for maintenance.

“They all need to be able to back each other up,” says Hublard. “People are more concerned with, ‘Can this person do the job? Can this person work with me? Can we help each other? than anything else.”

Everyone socializes easily, too. They routinely have lunch together, and one crew has formed a bowling team.

Of the 36 employees who work on the shop floor at Reflexite America in New Britain, 32 were born in Poland and four in the United States, according to Human Resource Coordinator Eileen Baran. English is a second language for all the Polish-born workers. But overcoming language difficulties and dealing with cultural differences hasn’t been a huge problem at this employee-owned company.

Reflexite, which manufactures reflective materials, light-controlling films and lenses, was founded in 1970 with about five employees, some from the local Polish community.

“The Polish community is tight, and people know each other,” says Director of Operations Mark Zapatka. As the company grew, employees encouraged their friends and relatives to apply for positions.

To move into leadership roles, employees need to speak English, so Reflexite made ESL training available free of charge during working hours for any employee who wanted it. Many took advantage of the opportunity, and many have gone on to take courses at local colleges on their own initiative, as well, with tuition reimbursed by the company. Today, Zapatka says, he can converse in English with all but a handful of employees. For that group, Eileen Baran, who is bilingual, or another employee provides translation.

At Cooper-Atkins Corp. in Middlefield, nearly one-third of the 150 employees are originally from other countries, including Poland, Italy, Japan, Slovakia, Columbia, India and Puerto Rico. And that’s just fine with President and CEO Carol Wallace, who has a personal interest in countries and languages.

One of the ways the company celebrates its diversity is by holding an International Day, when employees wear ethnic clothing and bring in ethnic foods.

“We all gather and have a luncheon,” says Wallace. “Everyone shares. It really celebrates our diversity.”

While not all employees speak English, the company does offer ESL classes to try to promote a common language, and bilingual employees translate when necessary. Religious observances haven’t been a problem; people use floating holidays or personal days. The company does much of its hiring based on internal referrals.

“When people come in, they know what the culture of the organization is — that we don’t tolerate intolerance in any shape or form,” says Wallace. “It’s evidenced by the fact that we promote an international culture by hiring a diverse population and that we celebrate our differences and similarities.”

One of the ways Wallace demonstrates her personal appreciation of workplace diversity is to learn to say a few phrases in every language represented.

“We’ve taken many small steps to ensure that the entire organization understands that management embraces cultural diversity,” Wallace says. “We haven’t done any rocket science; it’s just a matter of enjoying the diversity we have.”

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no-habla-ingles said...

The language barrier is often cited as a primary driver of higher than average injury and fatality rates among Hispanic workers. Translating safety training and materials into Spanish is a good first step; however, it's often not enough. Since literacy levels vary, lack of comprehension may still be an issue even if the material is translated into an employee's native language.

diversity-checker said...

Every request for reasonable accommodation should be evaluated separately to determine if it would impose an undue hardship. Undue hardship usually occurs when an employer or service provider cannot sustain the economic or efficiency costs of the accommodation.

E.S.L. said...

Language skills training by skilled professionals can build communication bridges that enable foreign-born employees to rise to their full potential. Oral communication can be improved 50-60% with a targeted, systematic approach to working on problem sounds, pacing and voice projection. Intensive focus on specific sound issues and oral presentation skills can bring about significant results in a short period of time. On-site programs can be structured to be non-intrusive yet highly effective.

koala1004 said...

I think, HRD practitioners and WLP professionals should know to different culture and language to embrace workplace’s environment. In addition, the Baby Boomer generations are taught traditional classroom and they are not familiar with new technologies. Therefore, they need to increase a new technology skill. The reason is that Generation X and millennial can treat a new technology so they might want to learn different ways such as using MP3 and podcast.