Diversity As Much A Cultural Issue As A Policy Challenge For Organizations Do our workplaces actually reflect the essential composition of our nations or societies appropriately?

By Rajeev Bhardwaj

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With a lot of human movement taking place around the world; issues of migration, assimilation, adaptation and the politics associated with them being discussed vociferously in world forums, diversity and how to manage it has become a tricky subject today. In several countries of Europe where increased migration in recent years has shifted the long-held monochrome cultures, there is a serious debate about assimilating diversity. In the US, which has long been more open to multicultural traditions, race relations have been at the center of the diversity debate.

Workplaces are in many ways a microcosm of a nation, representing multiple kinds of people – race, gender, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexual orientation -- all under one banner, working towards the same goal. However, do our workplaces actually reflect the essential composition of our nations or societies appropriately?

When it comes to India, the issue of diversity takes different connotations. We are touted as one of the most diverse nations in the world. Yet our behavior as a society often reflects problems with assimilation and (lack of) acceptance of differences. The problems faced by people from the north eastern states in Delhi or the racial slurs occasionally thrown as African students is a case in point.

Biases may be a part of social settings. But an organization as an ethical institution has to ensure that individual employees do not carry such individual attitudes to the workplace when among their colleagues.

Why is diversity important?

In today's world of free flow of people and brain, no work community can be a monolith. The diversity that people of multiple origins bring to an organization is immensely enriching. Much like a nation can maximize its collective strength by leveraging its diversity, a workplace benefits immensely from embracing diversity and making it a part of its culture. When organizations work diligently towards implementing diversity plans and ensuring that each individual feels liberated and accepted in the office environs, they experience a series of benefits, both tangible and intangible. A greater feeling of belongingness among the employees, greater inclusiveness, free flow of ideas, variety of enriching perspectives, enhanced productivity, better retention and a collective burst of positive energy are some aspects associated with greater diversity at workplace.

Diversity doesn't just bring together apples and oranges; it also brings together their respective cultures, practices, beliefs and work ethics. The amalgamation provides a wonderful cauldron from where new ideas and systems will originate. Working and living in a culturally diverse place is always enriching for individual employees, and it stimulates thinking and ideation process.

Workplace Diversity in the Indian Settings

The definition of what diversity comprises for a place often varies from context to context. Organizations in different nations have different diversity challenges to moot. In the US, for example, the question may be centered more on race; in the Philippines capital of Manila where Sun Life Financial has one of its Asia Service Centres, the presence of a strong and open LGBT community mandates diversity handlers to make the workplace open and discrimination free.

In India, currently, very few organizations make a deliberate and concerted policy effort to imbibe these values into their blood. The human resource managements mostly focus on short-term issues, target matters of immediate importance like hiring, retaining and placating. Not many show the foresight of looking ahead to cultivate an organizational fabric that cherishes diversity as the hallmark of its culture.

In a way, when it comes to India, we are still taking baby steps towards this concept. Forget sexual minorities or physically different people, we still have very less representation of women in our workforce, particularly at senior levels of organizations. If you look at the ratio of men and women at the entry stages of organizations, you will find a fair balance between the two sexes. However, as they graduate to senior levels, you see more and more women dropping out of the workforce due to a number of factors including personal situations, responsibility of raising children etc.

This doesn't just reflect on our social conditioning but also on the lack of flexibility or consideration in organizations to allow working mothers a more amenable environment. Organizations in our economy in a way are not yet conditioned or conducive enough to embrace working mothers, and lack systems to retain experienced and talented women employees. When it comes to the industry, the ratio is still an abysmal 15-20% (on the representation of women).

Other diversity challenges in India may include a resistance towards hiring from socially backward sections or freshers not too adept at English language communication.

Workplaces may also do well to devise policies that allow incorporation of experienced senior citizens and homemakers in part-time work arrangements that are mutually beneficial.

Challenges & How to Deal With Them

While it has immense benefits, ushering in an absolutely diversity friendly workplace presents its own challenges:

Resistance to Change: Resistance to change is a common challenge. As with any new idea, ushering in diversity-friendly policies also faces resistance from the current participants. A workplace is an amalgamation of different people working together and not all may be interested or keen in becoming a part of this endeavor. A change in policy or approach always brings in some amount of discomfort among the employees, some of whom may feel that the new policy unnecessarily favors a small segment (minority) of people. Cultural predispositions often make the workforce feel that new ideas inhibit progress. Many may fail to understand the long-term implications of such policy changes, requiring discussion and convincing.

A Cultural Challenge: Ensuring a truly diversity friendly workplace is not just a policy issue; it is as much a cultural challenge. You cannot display a memo on a public notice board and expect the organization to become diversity friendly from the next day. As much as policy changes, the culture of the organization has to be changed and molded to make it acceptable to diverse groups of people. Diversity and inclusiveness have to be built in the cultures of organizations for them to become truly equal opportunity employers. Apart from ensuring that no policy discriminates or presents a challenge to hiring or efficient working of different people, the majority of people in the workforce have to be trained to see diversity as an asset and embrace it wholeheartedly.

Orientation programs and diversity training for new joinees have to include a special component on diversity and gender sensitization. Women would certainly feel more comfortable in organizations where the workforce is sensitized against sexist jokes or colored remarks. An organization's work culture should be cultivated to ensure a complete assimilation and acceptance. The majority group should not be sidelining those in minority, men should not have an upper hand over women employees, or a gay employee shouldn't become the subject of ridicule!

Not just race, color, gender, caste or sexual preferences, even individual personality traits add to the diversity of an organization. Some employees will be more adventurous, and advocate risk taking while others may be more cautious and may suggest safer routes. Some may be brilliant in ideation yet lax in implementation; others may be better executors.

Need for a Top Down Approach: The culture of an organization is reflected in the approach of all employees, and this more effectively flows from top to the bottom. New employees learn from the examples set by their seniors. Having people in leadership with visibility lead by example can make much difference. Therefore, the top management and the leadership of an organization has to be completely aligned to the idea of diversity. As much as the new joinees, they need to be sensitized as well to shed their long-held cultural baggage and predispositions.

Communication Issues: Diversity also sometimes presents communication barriers including language, cultural, and behavioral. What is construed as a joke among north Indians may be something offensive for somebody from the south or vice versa. Diversity programs therefore also need to overcome such barriers. Sometimes, this may take more serious overtones and may involve ineffective communication on matters of importance, disrupt teamwork and create confusion. The answer lies in training employees to dispel barriers and pre-held perceptions through greater interactions and opening up to each other.

Ensuring Diversity Has to Be An Inclusive Process: As discussed above, new ideas spawn resistance. And the solution to quell resistance is to include the people themselves in the process of ushering in any change. For a new policy to be sustainable, every employee has to be responsible for it. Therefore while formulating diversity programs, it is a good idea to provide a platform to people to be able to talk, express themselves, open up about their perspectives on the issue, put forth objections if any and make their own suggestions. This will allow them to feel a part of the change and help ward off resistance.

Wavy Line
Rajeev Bhardwaj

VP-Human Resource, Sun Life Financial Asia Service Centre, India

Rajeev Bhardwaj, who heads the Human Resource function at Sun Life Asia Service Centre, is a veteran in the field who has spent 25 years contributing to the HR policies of diverse organizations across sectors.

Over the years, Rajeev has been associated with a slew of global organizations such as ABB, Coca Cola, and Intel Technology, among others.

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