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This article was originally published in the Tribune-Star on May 7, 2017.

Hiring employees from various backgrounds, cultures and experiences leads to workplace diversity. The vast majority of employers view diversity as an investment toward establishing a stronger business foundation, and many benefits are associated with diversity. Managers and leaders must recognize the benefits and effectively navigate the challenges of workplace diversity to be successful.

Workplace diversity stems from the 1960’s and Affirmative Action. This law required companies to comply with equal opportunity employment and objectives in the business climate. The challenge that arose was the word “token,” as that was the reason a group or individual was hired into the company when they were different from the dominant group of other employees. This often created a sensitive area that managers and leaders had to navigate.

Next, in the workplace, came the idea of “good will” or social justice. You hired someone or a group of people, not just because it was the law, but because it was the right thing to do. This still resonated around “tokenism” and introduced the idea of having employees or an employee being a “good fit” into the company.

With America being the “Melting Pot” of the world, the deficit model has evolved in the 2000’s. This idea is that if you do not have a diverse workplace, then your company will invite decreased productivity, increased absenteeism and higher employer turnover, all of which result in higher operating costs for the company.

Primary challenges of workplace diversity include communication, resistance to change and implementation.

Communication barriers lead to misunderstandings and difficulties communicating between employees and managers. If English is not the first language, this can be an additional barrier. To reduce or eliminate misunderstandings, ensure that expectations are understood and clear.

Resistance to change is a concern for many employees. People are creatures of habit and encouraging change is a difficult process. Employees are comfortable with their environment and having increased or new diversity introduced to the workplace is uncomfortable for them. Begin with inviting them into the process; this does not mean the interview or hiring process. Share with your employees’ reasons for diversity, what benefits it will offer the company and obtain buy-in from your employees. This helps eliminate fear that could exist.

Implementation involves developing a strategy, analyzing results and evaluating to make necessary changes. Diversity is constantly changing just as communities change. What worked 20 years ago does not work today; adjust your methods and mindset to reflect the needs of your employees and company in today’s market.

Recognizing challenges is beneficial, how do you approach fast-paced and always changing markets and needs of businesses today? Appreciating employees’ unique qualities permits you to understand their talents and needs. Here are a few simple activities to get your business kick-started:

• Table Tent Activities: For a meeting, provide an empty white table tent. Place the attendee name and title on the tent. Then have magazines at the table. Ask attendees to create the remainder of the table tent          representing their culture, personality and interests. Provide each member an opportunity to share something during his or her introduction.

• Walk Together, Walk Apart: Use two volunteers from your large group. Ask them to stand close together with their backs to each other. Ask your staff to call out things about the two volunteers that are different such as the color of each volunteer’s hair. As each difference is called out, the volunteers should take a step forward making them stand farther apart. Once they have reached a point where they can no longer move forward, ask the staff to call out things that are the same about the duo, such as being in the same room, wearing pants or being tall. Continue until the pair has moved closer facing each other. At the end of the activity, discuss how even when differences cause people to separate, similarities can bring them back together just as equally, if not more.

• Cultural Appreciation Day: Create a day at your business. Ask staff to celebrate something about their culture or heritage – where they came from, a favorite food, etc. This can be shared on their cubicle, their office door, at a meeting, etc. If you are from right here in the Wabash Valley you can discuss the avid mushroom hunting, for example, or maybe how your family came from Ireland.

• Attend Diversity Events: Rotate registrations to cultural conferences or, if affordable, send the entire staff. It permits the staff to learn more about each other, explore diversity from other companies and appreciate training in a new aspect.

Regardless of your technique, businesses should represent the community dynamics. This increases productivity, respect and support across all spectrums.

LEARN ABOUT PURDUE’S navigating difference training

Learn about Purdue’s Business Retention and Expansion Program

Heather Strohm is a community development regional educator for the Southwest Region of Purdue University Extension who writes the “Business Cents” column  for the business news section of her community’s newspaper. She can be reached at strohmh@purdue.edu.

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