I believe, after 20-plus years in the workforce including internal and external consulting, that people are all just people. And my four academic degrees, both practical and theory-based, support that understanding: people are all just people.
We all want a few basic things out of our workplace experience, and we all have specific expectations to fulfill the psychological contract. Those things may relate to satisfying basic needs (Maslow or four-drives theory) or they may have more to do with motivation (equity theory or Effort-Performance-Outcomes) or even organizational commitment (affective, normative, continuance). But what it all boils down to is that people of all types, all backgrounds, salaried or hourly, management or individual contributor, basically want and need to feel seen, safe, and valued.
Granted, what it takes for a black Christian woman, an Asian Buddhist man, or a blonde Muslim woman to feel seen, safe and valued may differ. And those are just a few of the dimensions of diversity that consultants and leaders in all kinds of organizations need to be aware of and address. There are two categories of diversity: surface-level and deep-level.
Surface-level diversity is based on the clearly visible variables that may draw attention or indicate a point of difference: gender, race, age, physical disabilities, and ethnicities or religions that require outward displays of identity fall into this category. Men and women, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, over 40 or under 30, Hasidic Jew or Sunni Muslim woman in a hijab, wheelchair-bound or missing a limb – all of these may be seen. They may also enable the individual to contribute a unique perspective on workplace tasks and effectiveness. They lend an additional layer to the individual’s discernment regarding business development, ideal prospects, client or customer service needs, supply chain management, or accessibility.
But deep-level diversity is just as important. This is the diversity of socio-economic background, religion, political leanings, sexual orientation, gender, and other unseen factors that may influence how work policies and practices affect your employees. Additionally, all of these diversity factors will influence how your employees deal with contemporary geopolitical and social events, as well as organizational actions and statements, and how your employees process them in the workplace.
Diversity is defined as the condition of having or being composed of differing elements, especially the inclusion of different types of people in a group or organization. Over the last thirty years, diversity has become a business buzzword. I’ve worked closely with D & I (diversity and inclusion) corporate professionals who were responsible for business conduct, ethics, and Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO). Often, that person was a member of a minority group (that’s a different conversation).
But to take diversity seriously, we must acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of thought and of expertise that our employees bring to the shared environment that we call work. Simultaneously, consideration of major religious holidays and practices, or special dietary restrictions at company functions, can go far toward making all employees feel seen. Instituting zero-tolerance policies for all forms of harassment (verbal, physical, and sexual) helps employees to feel safe, as does banning controversial personal, religious and political dialogues.
Banning or monitoring dialogues might sound extreme, but it may preserve peace and productivity in your workplace. Another option is to issue internal statements that make it clear where you as the Executive stand, and where the company stands, on specific issues. For example, issuing a statement about a current event or tragedy affecting a segment of your workforce might help your employees feel valued, because it indicates that you recognize the impact of the event and you care about the people affected – or perhaps a statement about the company’s apolitical stance in the wake of controversial geopolitical action or during a heated political campaign.
Nonprofits are particularly vulnerable to political winds, and those who work in nonprofits may have very clearly defined political leanings. But to honor diversity and make all employees feel seen, safe, and valued, you might consider moderating the on-hours rhetoric about the President, the Boy Scouts’ latest policy, Iran, Israel, etc.
Even micro-level current events become fodder for potential workplace conflict, dysfunction in which people attack one another’s values and personality rather than focusing on a specific task or issue. This is because of what those micro-events represent: not just a single armed gunman or bomber, but a white/black/Muslim/other extremist, representing an entire race, religion, or ethnicity.
It’s important to remember that the brain, in its attempts to simplify our understanding of the world and anticipate others’ behaviors, uncontrollably labels and categorizes people, things and events according to established and partly true stereotypes. A stereotype in someone’s head does no harm; in fact, it can facilitate growth and learning when it is invalidated by the actions of someone in the target group (“I thought all women were poor drivers, but now that I’ve ridden with Jill and Sarah, I guess that was wrong”). Stereotypes are not completely fictional, nor are they completely accurate, and they don’t represent all or most people in the category, but they minimize necessary cognitive effort by filling in missing information, and they support our social identity.
But we do have control over our words and actions. A rash statement in the heat of righteous indignation and outrage over a media-hyped event may too easily represent a discriminatory act (“You people come over here and steal our jobs!”). Left uncorrected in an environment that has no clear diversity and inclusion policy, such acts and statements leave the organization open to lawsuits, EEOC investigations, and other negative consequences such as loss of valuable human capital as high-performing employees quit, or loss of reputation as word gets out about how the company feels about group X or Y.
Speech and behaviors can be prevented and monitored, unlike internal mental processes like stereotyping, categorization, homogenization and differentiation. So no matter what the thought is, whether it represents a categorization (Jane looks Asian), or homogenization (Asian women love to cook), or even a differentiation (they cook things we don’t eat on our team), the thought is harmless.
When the thought manifests as a slur (“No, Jane, don’t bring any of your dishes to the team potluck; you people eat gross foods”), or an exclusion (“We usually just have a couple of us bring a special dish, but you don’t need to worry about that”), it can escalate into a discriminatory act or even a pattern of actions that eventually affect the person’s employment status. On the much brighter side, though, acknowledging and appreciating the variation of contributions can free your people up and empower them to innovate, disagree, revise, and more fully engage in the organization’s goals and objectives.
It is not too much, therefore, to allow a certain conference room to be reserved at set times of day for religious observances, or even to designate a space for them. Nor is it too much for an employer to allow employees to designate the religious holidays they will observe; you set the number of paid holidays and let them choose. To coordinate work, simply show on the team’s calendar that Person A will be out of the office on X date. Period.
Lately, issues of gender and sexuality have pervaded American society, and there are state laws and Executive Orders in place to afford members of the LGBT community protected-class status. Your response should be to scrub company policies and benefits statements of all gender-normed language (switch husband and wife to spouse, for example) to ensure inclusiveness. Then, make sure all of your employees feel valued by honoring them as they honor their values.
Making a diverse workforce feel seen, safe, and valued ensures that you get the most engaged, innovative, synergistic team possible and will attract more interesting, high-performing contributors to your organization. Of course they’ll bring their own challenges and ways of making work meaningful, but what an exciting problem to have!
Dr. Angela Spranger, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is a business consultant specializing in performance improvement and professional development in corporate and nonprofit organizations, focusing on effective followership, healthy teams, and maximizing organizational engagement. A Gallup Q12 and StrengthsFinder® facilitator and coach, she offers online Intentional Leaders Coaching programs, emotional intelligence coaching, and workshops on personality type and strengths integration. She is a lecturer at the Luter School of Business, Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Virginia. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is reprinted from Issue #5 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!
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