How Should Opposition To Workplace Diversity Initiatives Be Handled?

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Whether you are selling the idea of developing and implementing a workplace diversity initiative to executive management or to the entire staff, questions around the purpose of initiating such an endeavor will -- in all likelihood -- arise. If not dealt with promptly and effectively, these questions and concerns could be the catalyst for resistance and undermine your results. Oftentimes, proper communication throughout the process can address and sometimes help to avert opposition to such an initiative before it arises. The responses to three commonly asked questions are below:

1) Why are we doing this? Explain the demographic changes in the workforce followed by additional information about the population shifts in your region and in your organization, is a start. You may wish to follow with a discussion of changes that employees have seen and are presently dealing with, in both the organization and the customer-base, and how those changes impact them daily on the job.

2) What's diversity got to do with it? This question may require an explanation of the business imperative related to workplace diversity, showing that preserving the organization's long-term survival is the objective and pointing out the pragmatic benefits to the individual. For example, learning how to communicate across language barriers may be helpful to supervisors of employees who speak limited English or to customer contact staff who deal with a multicultural customer base. Also, developing strategies for resolving conflicts may be useful to managers with fractionalized teams. Or developing coaching skills may give managers the tools they need to mentor and nurture diverse staff members.

3) Does this mean that we have to lower our standards? Quality versus workplace diversity perceptions are the root of this question. Resistance may arise among employees who think the emphasis on workplace diversity is antithetical to quality. Dealing with this question may require a discussion of different ways to view the relationship between quality and workplace diversity. The most important point to make regarding this question is that quality and workplace diversity are not mutually exclusive and do occur in the same employee or individual.

Although challenging, such questions provide the opportunity to set the tone, teach about workplace diversity, and demonstrate the organization's commitment to creating a truly inclusive, respectful work environment. Although effective responses can vary, the following are guidelines that may help you to frame responses without creating greater discomfort with the topic.

1) Inquire. Ask questions to understand, clarify, or get more information. Dig deeper to find out what the person means and what reasoning is behind the comment or question. Make sure your inquiry is a real search for information and not an off-putting accusation.

"What makes you say that?"
"Is that a problem that you are faced with?"
"Can you tell me more about that?"
"How does this impact your interactions with customers?"

2) Show empathy. When powerful emotions are present, acknowledging and responding to the feelings expressed is an important first step in defusing the situation. Listen not just to the words, but to the underlying feelings. It is likely that you will be faced with frustrations similar to those faced by the individual with whom you are talking. Demonstrating understanding can help calm the upset individual so that further communication can take place.

"It is frustrating when you can't understand someone."
"It is difficult to help when you don't know if you're being understood."
"That is irritating for me, too."
"Dealing with situations like that is stressful."

3) Educate. Once emotions have calmed, use this time as an opportunity to debunk myths, give facts and explain. Share your reading and knowledge about stereotypes, cultural differences and civil rights.

"Did you know that the first civil rights law was passed right after the Civil War, more than 130 years ago?"
"The term 'gypped' comes from Gypsy."
"Many gays and lesbians prefer the term 'sexual orientation' over 'sexual
preference' as it expresses their sense that one's sexuality is not a choice but is how someone is born."

4) Express your feelings. When it is your feelings that are involved, you have a right to let the other person know the impact of the comment. Use non-blaming "I" statements when explaining your reactions.

"I feel diminished when I'm referred to as a gal or girl."
"I'm uncomfortable when us vs. them generalizations are made."

5) State your needs or expectations. If it is different behavior that you desire, let people know what you do and do not want.

"Let's focus on creating an approach that we can both agree on."
"Jokes about other religions or cultural groups are off limits with me."

6) Avoid polarization. Getting stuck in an either/or situation can be avoided by soliciting other options and points of view.

"What might be other reasons for this behavior?"
"How might someone of a different background see this?"

7) Use the silence of no response or delaying your response. While silence can be interpreted as tacit approval, there are times when the silence of no response is deafening and sends a powerful message of disapproval. Not laughing at a joke or not responding to a sarcastic remark may serve as all the comment that is needed.

8) Avoid arguing and defending. Curb the impulse to debate, persuade, argue or defend your point of view. Doing so usually only strengthens the resistance and drives entrenched opinions deeper. One of the most difficult diversities of all to deal with may be that of differences in values. Acknowledging that we can have differences of opinion yet respect one another also demonstrates your ability to "walk the talk" of workplace diversity.

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Maximizing Value Through Diversification

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Diversifying can be the best way for companies to match their capabilities to the marketplace.

Corporate diversification is a prime example of a once-popular management idea that has fallen from grace. In the 1960s, the "conglomerate kings" — giants such as Gulf & Western and ITT — snapped up dozens of businesses to general acclaim. More recent studies, however, have found that diversified companies trade at a 5% to 12% discount relative to focused companies.

Most economists interpret this evidence to mean that diversification causes poor performance. According to the standard agency account, managers pursue diversification for selfish reasons, such as the desire to build an empire or reduce their personal risk. The resulting conglomerates often operate inefficiently — strong divisions, for example, may subsidize the weak — leading investors to punish diversified companies.

But what if the causal arrow points the other way? Could diversification be not the cause of poor performance, but its result? That's the argument put forward by John Matsusaka, professor of finance and business economics at the University of Southern California, in an article titled "Corporate Diversification, Value Maximization and Organizational Capabilities," which appeared in the July 2001 issue of the Journal of Business.

Matsusaka presents a mathematical model that shows how diversification can be a value-maximizing strategy — even if specialization remains the ultimate goal. He begins by observing that companies can be seen as collections of organizational capabilities, such as expertise in marketing or new-product development, that are transferable across products and industries to a certain degree. Because such capabilities have value, companies facing a decline in their core business should not simply shut down. Instead, they can maximize shareholder value by trying to find a new industry that offers a good match for their skills.

Although careful analysis can improve the search process, some uncertainty about the quality of a match will almost invariably remain. Consequently, experimentation — "entering an industry and observing the outcome" — is often the only way to determine whether a sector offers a good fit. Very rarely, managers choose to liquidate their existing operations before embarking on experimentation. More often, diversification — combining old and new activities — is the result.

Viewed from that perspective, diversification typically marks a period of transition. Companies will try to reject a number of possible businesses before refocusing in the industry that offers the closest fit. However, under certain conditions, diversification can become a long-term strategy. In highly competitive sectors, where the value of an enterprise's best match can quickly drop, precautionary diversification often makes sense. That dynamic, Matsusaka suggests, may explain the importance of diversification for companies such as 3M and General Electric.

Matsusaka's theory offers a new explanation for the diversification discount: Diversified companies have begun the process of redeploying underperforming assets but haven't yet found a good match. The theory also can make sense of several empirical puzzles, such as why investors often respond positively when companies announce diversification programs. In this case, the fact that managers are looking for a better match for their capabilities may come as good news.

However, diversification is not always the right strategy, Matsusaka cautions, nor will it always deliver positive results. Since uncertainty is inherent in the search process, some experiments will fail. "If you're drilling for oil, you know some holes are going to come up dry," he observes.

More important, for a company that has already found its ideal match, diversification probably doesn't make sense. "If you have something you're good at, just stick to your knitting," Matsusaka says. "But at some point, when your product starts to decline, you have to decide whether you want to liquidate or preserve your organizational capital. And if it's valuable enough to preserve, you may have to take a leap."

Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1977-2007. All rights reserved.

Source : Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Challenges to Workplace Diversity - Minority Women Have Made Strides, But Hurdles Linger

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By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post

When Rockville resident Saquiba Ahmed, 38, sought a corporate job in 2000, she researched the diversity policies of several companies and networked mostly with women of color. On her resume, she listed her fluency in the Urdu and Hindu languages and her involvement in an organization that assists Pakistani women.

But while Ahmed did not downplay her ethnic and racial background to potential employers, she was unsure how comfortable she would feel as a South Asian American in the workplace. "I was nervous about not being able to fit in because of my cultural values and the color of my skin," she recalled.

Ahmed was hired by Sodexho Inc., a food- and facilities-management services company, as a generalist in the human resources department. She's now the company's diversity coordinator. She was among the 150 attendees at a recent Women of Color Multicultural Town Hall, an all-day event held recently in downtown Washington. It was sponsored by New York-based Working Mother Media, publisher of Working Mother magazine.

The primary goal of the meeting was "to foster dialogues about issues of race and about where race and gender meet in the workplace," said Carol Evans, president and chief executive of Working Mother Media. The company has sponsored similar meetings in other cities over the past two years.

At the D.C. meeting, the challenges discussed included stereotyping by superiors, racial jokes by co-workers, the lack of mentors and sponsors, the lack of recognition for work, feelings of isolation and invisibility, and lack of opportunities for training and development.

Just 1.6 percent of Fortune 500 corporate officer and top-earner positions are held by women of color, according to a 2002 study of such positions in Fortune 500 companies that was highlighted during the meeting. Black women held 1.1 percent of those positions, Asian American women held 0.29 percent, and Latino women held 0.24 percent, according to the study, conducted by New York-based Catalyst, a research and advisory services group.

But the general tone of the participants was optimistic and pragmatic. In an instant poll conducted at the meeting, 58 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: "My company is sensitive to the cultural issues facing women of color in the organization." Sixty-seven percent answered yes to the question, "Do you currently have an ongoing mentor at your place of work?" And 63 percent said their future plans were to stay with their current organization.

Panelists offered advice on succeeding in the business world that went beyond generalities such as "be the best you can be":

Find a mentor. An adviser can be your boss, a personal coach, or anyone on an executive level who is willing to meet with you and "help you navigate land mines" in the organization, said Ingrid Beckles, vice president of default asset management at Freddie Mac. Don't share too much about your job pitfalls and concerns with your mentor, said Patricia Gonzalez-Perez, executive director of Customer Response Northeast at Verizon Communications Inc. "It's not the same as sitting down with your mom or a close friend," she said.

Network as much as possible, and ask for help as you move on in your career, said Marcia R. Tuck, senior vice president and area manager at SunTrust Bank's Maryland region. She said she regrets not requesting more help in the 1970s and '80s when she joined the "white male-dominated" banking industry in the Washington area.

And don't hesitate to change jobs, said Beckles of Freddie Mac. She recalled that when she was a bank vice president around 1990, "it didn't dawn on me until I got a call from a headhunter who offered three times my salary that I was being so underpaid," she said.

Ahmed said the Multicultural Town Hall provided "food for my soul," and noted that she plans to meet regularly with the 14 women she met at an Asian Roundtable there.

"It's a great time to be a woman of color in corporate America," she said between panel discussions. "But there is still a lot of work to be done to get rid of the stereotypes and focus on our skills and abilities."

Source : The Washington Post