The best practice of managing diversity at work

The best practice of managing diversity at work

The business case for being positive about diversity at work is not just legal and financial; it is also closely linked to looking after your customers and your staff. Although many organisations are becoming more aware of the legal aspects of discrimination, a focus on the legislation will not change hearts and minds.

This article discusses what is meant by diversity, outlines the business case for taking a positive approach to diversity at work, and discusses the psychological underpinnings of related concepts such as stereotyping, prejudice and group membership. Most importantly it will highlight best practice for training and diversity awareness sessions, as recent research highlights that if not done correctly diversity training can actually make things worse.

What is diversity?

People vary in multiple ways, by age, personality, gender, ethnicity, religion, education, sexual orientation, morals, beliefs, hair colour, and shoe size, to name but a few! Sometimes these differences mean that some people are treated less favourably, or find things more difficult to do because of the way we create our environment to fit the ‘average’ person. Sometimes this makes people upset or angry, or they just ‘give-up’. Generally it can lead to misunderstandings and/or poor working relationships. Even if no harm was intended, in the wrong environment people can feel threatened and stressed if they perceive inequalities. It often means the organisation and the people in it are not working as effectively as they could.

The business case
Organisations in many parts of the world are beginning to take note of the benefits of a diverse and equal workforce. These include:

  • Enhanced creativity
  • Reduced employee stress
  • Increased customer satisfaction (particularly where the customer profiles are matched with staff profiles)
  • Reduced incidence of bullying or harassment
  • Improved team-working

For many this has led to increased organisational performance and a reduction in problem behaviours, (some of which may result in legal claims).

Psychological underpinnings
A wide range of psychological processes underpin both the problems and the solutions to diversity in organisations.

These include:

  • Group memberships – People have a strong need to feel part of the in-group. They like to identify with people who are similar to them and there is a strong drive to wish to differentiate from out-groups. This can lead to:
  • Categorisation – lumping people together into groups because they seem to share characteristics. This process is very beneficial to us normally as it speeds up recognition, allowing us to see that a Poodle and a Great Dane are still examples of dogs for example (and therefore potentially dangerous if they bite). However as people are so complex this generalisation process is often misleading. It is linked to our need to use:
  • Stereotyping – ideas are held about other people based solely on their membership of particular groups or their physical characteristics. Although useful when there is a need to make quick judgements (in evolutionary terms stereotyping has been helpful for our survival) they can be used unthinkingly to create prejudice and to justify discriminatory behaviour. Stereotyping can lead to prejudice – pre-judging people solely on the basis of some perceived difference.

Many of these processes are automatic, although in the right circumstances people can learn to reduce or control them. Understanding these processes, and why they are both useful and problematic, can also help us to understand which types of diversity training can be of most benefit.

Best practice for diversity training
Many organisations have started to include diversity awareness training as a standard; some are moving further forward into diversity management (which implies a step-change in systems and processes). However, some types of awareness training actually increase the processes of group membership and stereotyping, actually making the atmosphere at work worse! Groups can become defensive if made to feel responsible for inequalities and may increase their group cohesion by denigrating the out-group. Other activities have been known to increase anger, confusion, or to lead staff to deny that such situations exist in the workplace today.

The most successful interventions apply the concepts of social identity and enable re-categorisation (welcoming a broader membership into your in-group) and make salient the complexity of social identities. Such exercises have been shown to minimise bias and increase tolerance and positivity towards ‘out-groups’. Other successful interventions include simple stereotype activation sessions, where employees are then allowed to discuss why they were unable to consider non-stereotypical answers to scenarios. Examples of these include situations which can only be resolved by non-stereotypical gender roles, such as a female surgeon. Increasing awareness of our own cognitive biases and how the processes ‘work’ has been shown to increase participants’ motivation and willingness to change.

One important factor must be taken into account. Prejudice and discrimination are supported, or rejected, by organizational norms and values. Research indicates that people often become more prejudiced in public, because of the support they gain from others. Any diversity training must therefore start at the top and include everyone in the organisation, and systems and policies must be effective in demonstrating that the organisation is equal, open and fair.

Increasingly, HR Professionals are increasing their own knowledge of the psychological aspects of work, by studying advanced courses in occupational psychology or organizational behaviour. They wish to ensure that they fully understand the processes involved in their practice, and can ensure that any training and development, even if outsourced, is based on both theory and the latest evidence. Diversity is one of many areas in HR that can be more fully informed by considering psychological processes.