The problem of accepting and embracing diversity in the workplace has been in existence since the birth of the Industrial Age and before. This problem increases as the variety of the diversity increases and it affects each person within a company in a multitude of ways.
When we hear the word diversity, all too often, we tend to think of the most obvious groups of diversity that people divide into; we tend to think about race, gender, and age primarily. These are simply the most obvious from a visual standpoint. There are also religious and lifestyle preferences, differences in education levels or salary levels. Diversity can be based on: positions held within the company, computer literacy, political views, where people live, whether they are single, married, widowed, or divorced, have children, are childless and so many more factors that cannot be seen physically.
As explained by Chris Katterjohn, “You could look at a group of 10 people who represent every color in the rainbow and think you’re looking at an incredibly diverse group, and you could be dead wrong or just partially right. They could all be males: they could all be from two-parent households;” In this manner, he brings to light the fact that all too often assumptions are made based on a minute amount of the information, which can be known about an employee.
All too often, people feel uncomfortable in their own workplace due to their differences. Employees with alternate lifestyles can feel the strain of a company sponsored employee get together where a spouse is welcomed, but a same sex life partner is not. Meetings or parties planned for after work hours when a single parent with children to care for, or a student who attends evening classes is not able to attend, feel exclusionary. Employees with non-mainstream religious views must remove religious icons or symbols from their desk area. Yet, others keep bibles or crosses visible because these are more acceptable to the majority of workers in the United States.
Though she was researching incidents of religious bias in particular, the following excerpt, in which Elswick quotes a discussion with Georgette Bennett, president of the Tanenbaum Center, could just as easily apply to many other forms of bias as well.
“Incidents causing employees to experience bias usually aren’t isolated episodes of overt bigotry, says Bennett. Rather, they occur regularly in more quiet ways, often caused by ignorance or misunderstanding.” This lack of understanding is something, which needs to be addressed in order to promote a healthy atmosphere in the workplace. This healthier aspect is important, not only for the emotional well being of the employees, but for their physical and mental well being as well.
When people feel uncomfortable about who they are, how they live, or what they choose to believe, they cannot devote their full attention to their jobs. If they feel the need to hide a portion of themselves from coworkers, they will be under additional stress, other than that related to their job or home life. We all experience stress in the different facets of our lives, all of which can have a measurable affect our performance, attention span and even our health. Stress can cause mental, as well as physical illness, which lowers the overall productivity of employees in the workplace.
As noted by Robert Sapolsky, in an article for Scientific American, “More so than in other species, the primate stress response can be set in motion not only by a concrete event but by mere anticipation.” This stress, once triggered, may go on to affect the employee in many different ways, much to the detriment of their job and eventually affecting their employment as a whole.
Lewis Schiffman, of Atlanta Health Systems warns, “If there is…tension or misunderstanding, it creates a much more stressful work environment,” He also explained that this tension “…adversely affects everyone’s health and will also increase the number of injuries and workers’ comp claims.” As such, it makes sense that it is to the benefit of Corporate America, as a whole, to institute a policy of acceptance when it comes to the many differences found among the nation’s diverse employees.
It is important that companies strive to understand the needs of their employees. There needs to be an active program on the part of employers to promote greater tolerance of the differences that exist within the company. They should teach this understanding and acceptance of the differences found within the company in order to promote a better working environment for all employees.