Diversity in the Workplace

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Diversity means having distinct or unlike elements. In a workplace, diversity means employing people who may be different from each other and who do not all come from the same background. The differences may be those of national origin, physical appearance, religion, education, age, gender, or sexual orientation.

Corporate culture previously focused on a very narrow range of differences, but the range has become broader. Diversity in the workplace has now become a reality for all employers. Managing that diversity is an idea whose time has come. Employers of all kinds are awakening to the fact that a diverse workforce is not a burden, but a potential strength.


Changing demographics is an urgent reason for the increased interest in managing diversity in the workplace. When the 2000 census results were reported, business received a jolt: Hispanics had become nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population and had surpassed African Americans as the largest minority group. With more diversity come varied expectations of service as well as language barriers. Customer service training consultants are adding diversity to their curriculum because customers have varied backgrounds and expect customized service. Employers realize they must attract, retain, and promote a full spectrum of people to be successful. So great is their need that advice on management of diversity is a growth industry.

Progressive employers have developed specialized programs to deal with the workforce diversity. Some of these programs, known as "valuing differences programs," are geared to the individual and interpersonal level. Their objective is to enhance interpersonal relationships among employees and to minimize blatant expressions of prejudice. Often these programs focus on the ways that men and women or people of different races or cultures have unique values, attitudes, behavior styles, and ways of thinking. These educational sessions can vary in length from one day to several days or they can occur on an ongoing basis. They usually concentrate on one or several of the following general objectives:

  • Fostering awareness and acceptance of human differences

  • Fostering a greater understanding of the nature and dynamics of individual differences
  • Helping participants understand their own feelings and attitudes about people who are different from themselves
  • Exploring how differences might be tapped as assets in the workplace


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing antidiscrimination efforts. The EEOC has identified what constitutes unlawful harassment: It is verbal or physical conduct that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual because of his or her race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, or disability or that of his or her friends, relatives, or associates. It must also create a hostile work environment, interfere with work performance, and affect one's employment opportunities. Many states, cities, and employers have also included sexual orientation in their antidiscrimination policies.

Examples of harassment include epithets, slurs, negative stereotyping, or threatening acts toward an identified person or group. Other examples include written or graphic material placed on walls, bulletin boards, or elsewhere on the employer's premises that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group. Included in this definition are acts that purport to be pranks but in reality are hostile or demeaning.

To be illegal, harassment must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an intimidating or abusive work environment. Although courts do not usually hold employers liable for violations based on isolated derogatory remarks in the workplace, many recognize that in the right context one slur can effectively destroy a working relationship and can create a hostile environment, particularly if the comment is made by a supervisor.

At the organizational level, employers must be sensitive to local, state, and federal regulations that address all types of discrimination in employment. With today's diverse workplace, the goal is to increase the chances of equal opportunity for all workers and mutual respect in the workplace.


Providing a workplace free from harassment is one of the basic responsibilities of an employer. Although sexual harassment has received most of the public attention, harassment can take many forms. As employers add staff from a variety of ethnic, religious, age, and cultural groups, maintaining a harmonious workplace is critical. Given our increasing litigious society, it is inevitable that court decisions related to other forms of harassment will increase.

A major challenge for all employers is to assimilate a variety of employees into the mainstream of corporate life. Women and minorities are sometimes excluded from social activities or left out of informal communications networks. The result appears to be a sense of isolation, lower organizational commitment, and ultimately a decision to seek employment in a more welcoming environment. For example, a woman feeling left out may think that too much emphasis is placed on getting along with others in senior management: "As a woman, I do not fit into the group of males who go to lunch together and play golf together. These are the guys who get the promotions."

As workforce diversity increases, exclusion and isolation may disappear. In the meantime, a few organizations are encouraging women's support groups, black caucuses, and other ways to help subgroups tie into social and communications networks. More importantly, organizations are becoming more sensitive to sponsoring social activities that will allow full participation by all employees.


Making prejudgments is part of human nature because a person cannot anticipate every event freshly in its own right. Although prejudgments help give order to daily living, a person's mind has a habit of assimilating as much as it can into categories, which may result in irrational judgments. A person acts with prejudice because of his or her personality, which has been formed by family, school, the media and community environments.

Prejudice has been defined as an attitude based partly on observation and partly on ignorance, fear, and cultural patterns, none of which has a rational basis. A prejudiced person tends to think of all members of a group as being the same, giving little consideration to individual differences. This kind of thinking gives rise to stereotypes.

Stereotypes, like prejudices, are based partly on observation and partly on ignorance and tradition. For example, a person who assumes that all women are overly emotional is subscribing to a widely held but false stereotype.

Stereotypes are difficult to overcome because they usually develop over a long time. Some stereotypes are shared by many people, giving them an illusion of rationality. Many people, however, are trying to rid themselves of stereotyped thinking about others. This effort reflects a growing consciousness that people are individuals and can and should be treated as such.

The basis of prejudice toward a subgroup of society is often found in economic or psychological factors. Most free-market countries have a diversity of social groups. The social mobility concept postulates that as one sub-group moves up in economic terms, it is replaced by a less fortunate subgroup that is seeking a better way of life.

Since the mid-1800s, various ethnic groups have immigrated to the United States in waves. Tension between subgroups is often a result of economic competition for jobs, shelter, and social status. When physical differences, religious beliefs, ethical values, and traditions differ, subgroups can feel threatened and can sometimes take inappropriate actions.

Sometimes, there is a short-term macroeconomic gain for employers in aiding and abetting discrimination in the workplace. Competition for jobs among workers can help employers to lower wages and neglect working conditions. Employers often threaten striking workers with the prospect of being replaced, since there are usually members of minority groups who are willing to take jobs that pay lower wages.

As the United States becomes more involved in international markets, business managers are becoming aware that discrimination can make a disastrous impression on potential buyers and sellers. When one promotes democracy but practices discrimination, one's credibility is lost. Establishing oil trade with African countries, for example, becomes more complex when Africans see the U.S. establishment discriminating against African Americans.


The United States has a history of divisiveness. White settlers drove out Native Americans and, in the South, set up a system of labor based on slavery. Some racism toward blacks and Native Americans still exists in the United States.

Minority groups come from subcultures that often have their own norms and values, which are not always understood by the majority group. For example, African Americans' social relations are sometimes characterized by an outlook they describe as ecosystem distrust. Ecosystem distrust subsumes such phenomena as lower interpersonal trust and suspicion of authority figures. When this type of outlook is brought into a traditional white, middle-class work environment, there can be misunderstandings and mistrust. Lack of awareness of these phenomena can easily lead to false assumptions by management about the worker. Because of cultural differences, many employers are conducting cross-cultural training for employees from both majority and minority groups.


Many women have felt discriminated against in the workplace. Advancement into management positions for women has been difficult. Since the 1990s, more and more women have not only entered the workforce but also have been promoted into management positions. Some would argue that men and women influence the workplace differently. Women are perceived as exercising leadership through strong interpersonal skills. Male leadership can be perceived as more direct, impersonal, and focused on results. A diverse team incorporating different styles of leadership will do more to help employers succeed in today's marketplace.

Traditionally, women have been discriminated against in terms of pay. The wage gap continues to narrow slowly. For various reasons, women's pay is gaining parity with men's. For example, many high-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared, forcing many men into jobs in lower-paying service industries.

Americans continue to mature; an increasing number of minority youths are becoming part of the workforce; gay men and lesbians are becoming an important part of the workforce and marketplace; people with disabilities are also increasingly entering the labor force; and business is becoming more global. Organizations that continue to exclude some segments of the population from their workforce risk sending the less-than-subtle message that some employees and perhaps some customers are less valued, less important, and less welcome. This will have a negative effect on the bottom line.

see also Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; Organizational Behavior and Development


Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. http://www.eeoc.gov

Hymowitz, Carol (2005, October 24). "Too many women fall for stereotypes of selves, study says." The Wall Street Journal, p. B1.

Katz, Judith H., Miller, Frederick A., and Seashore, Edith W. (1994). The promise of diversity: Over 40 voices discuss strategies for eliminating discriminatin in organizations. Burr Ridge, IL: Irwin.

Rout, Lawrence (Ed.). (2005, November 14). Leadership [Special section]. The Wall Street Journal, section R.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel (2003). "Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?": And other conversations about race. New York: Basic.

U.S. Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov

Patrick J. Highland