Turn diversity into advantage

PHOTO: Turn diversity into advantage

Recently, I learnt that an acquaintance had been getting the cold shoulder from a number of his co-workers.

It turned out he had made some culturally insensitive remarks. I thought they had been innocent but several colleagues thought he had well and truly overstepped the line.

That got me to thinking about diversity in the workplace. I suppose we all like to think we are tolerant, respectful people. In multicultural Singapore, we have lived with diversity all our lives.

But for some bosses, managing diversity among staff can be a tricky business - partly as the question of diversity is broader than you might imagine.

Of course, diversity in the workplace relates to gender, culture, nationality and religion.

But it also involves sexual orientation and increasingly, generational differences.

And industry experts warn that sometimes our tribal instincts may kick in - causing co-workers to erect barriers among themselves.

"Psychology shows that when you see something new, your first reaction is often negative," said Siemens AG chief diversity officer Denice Kronau, in an interview with The Straits Times.

"You're concerned you don't know how to handle it, your first reaction as a human being is that new is bad. That puts up an immediate barrier to be able to accept something new."

Companies need to face up to these issues as differences can become problematic if they are not managed well, said The GMP Group assistant director of corporate services Josh Goh.

"What is important is that there must be an understanding that when there is diversity, it becomes an issue when people use their own experiences as a benchmark to measure others," he said.

It then becomes the job of employers to educate workers on the differences that can exist, especially when they recognise a diverse workforce, he said.

This should be done even as early as the recruitment process, so that employees understand that talent does not come in a specific shape, size or gender. Rather, diversity of talent should be recognised for the potential it brings to the company.

And to turn diversity into an advantage, bosses need to ask employees explicitly: "What motivates you?"

Where diversity exists, companies should also understand that employees have more in common than they know - to be recognised and appreciated for what they have done, said Ms Kronau.

"There's not too many people who want to remain anonymous for their accomplishments their whole lives," she said. "I want to be respected that my person is enough; that you're not looking at me that I need to change this, be something different. That who I am as a human is really sufficient."

Ms Kronau made sure she understood the motivations of every member of her team from the start, to ensure they were aligned with the job at hand.

She said: "I really try to play to people's strengths and pair them... with what they love to do, in addition to what they need to do. In that way, people start to find that they have things in common with each other, and so their barriers come down without me saying: 'All you people have to get along'."

For employees, being sensitive and having an open mind towards differences is the way to make diversity work to both the company's and their own advantage, said Mr Goh.

Failing to do this will lead only to stereotyping and people grouping together, which will be counterproductive if not addressed early on.

With different nationalities coming to work together, miscommunication and conflicts can arise as "people may not have the same vocabulary" even if they all speak English, said Ms Kronau.

In such cases, Mr Goh advises that it is better to be straightforward and explain to the co-worker what he should be mindful of.

"Sometimes even the way a man talks to a woman in different cultures could be an issue. If it's due to a lack of awareness, it's fine to gently remind someone that it's not the way that it works in their country. It's a reminder to make a person aware."

If a worker is troubled by a co-worker's work attitude, experts advise that it is better to highlight the issue to the bosses.

But an emerging difference that has surfaced in the workplace is the gap between workers that belong to different generations, as the workforce is not only made up of baby boomers and Generation X, but Generation Y as well.

As the former chief executive of Siemens' global shared services business, Ms Kronau believes that managers need to learn to put away their old ways and become more flexible to accommodate this.

"When I was the CEO and we had management meetings, I wouldn't allow people to bring in their laptops or BlackBerrys," she said. "If I was to say to someone who's 23 years old: 'Put that BlackBerry or iPhone down', they wouldn't be able to talk to me any more because their device wasn't in their hands. I had to learn to compromise and say: 'You can have it for half the day, and you will work my way the other half of the day'."

Instead of pigeonholing each other, letting go of these stereotypes will also help employees learn from the strengths of each generation.

For example, in some organisations, baby boomers mentor their younger employees from Generation Y, while learning how to navigate the complex world of social media in return, said Mr Goh.


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