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Creating and Managing a Diverse Team of Employees

Written by: Charla Bizios Stevens

As the economy grows more global, immigration increases and the workforce becomes more diverse, employers are faced with a number of challenges not previously present in the workplace. Large numbers of immigrants have come to New Hampshire from Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa. As many as ten or twenty languages can be spoken in one workplace. How does a company make sure their employee communications - everything from benefit information to safety issues to dress codes are fully understood without a common language? Some companies have their handbooks and applications translated into numerous languages and find it necessary to pay for translation assistance in order to make sure employees can understand each other and their supervisors. Forward-thinking employers can take steps to prevent inadvertent discrimination by management and co-workers by examining the issues facing diverse workforces today.

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The members of your team may bring to the workplace many similarities such as basic needs, common goals and human experiences. However, they also come with differences, some intangible such as points of view and values and others specific such as language, heritage and core values tied to their religious or cultural background. The differences can affect how individuals perform their jobs, how they relate to one another and how they take direction from supervisors. Here, we focus on ethnicity and religion as two of the more significant differences.

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A person's ethnic background is part of his or her make-up as a human being. How he feels about or portrays his heritage can be just as significant as to what ethnic group he belongs. Individuals can identify themselves as "Polish", "Irish-American" or simply "American". Ethnic differences and how people relate to them highlight differences in cultural norms, holiday observances, language proficiency and group affiliation.

It is important for management to respond when a team of workers begins to separate along ethnic lines. Groups may begin to speak their own language to the exclusion of those who do not understand. Certain groups may become isolated from one another. At times, the situation can be so serious that ethnicity becomes a source of divisiveness.

Consider the following:

  1. How do you react to an employee who lowers her eyes when being addressed by a supervisor? Do you assume it is a sign of deceit or dishonesty? Might it be a show of respect?
  2. How is an employee who leaves the room in embarrassment after being praised viewed as opposed to one who beams with pride?
  3. What assumptions do you make about an employee who moves and works quickly as opposed to one who acts slowly and deliberately? Or one who contributes freely to an exchange of ideas versus one who does not speak in a group setting?

It is important for employers to recognize the cultural and ethnic differences in their employees in order to understand how these differences may impact the productivity of a team or department. Realizing there are such differences, identifying them and discussing them is the first step towards using them to make a more effective and productive workforce.

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The lessons learned from how to manage ethnic differences also come into play when dealing with a variety of religious beliefs and practices. Whether employees are American born or immigrants, their religious beliefs are personal and often dearly held; and they make up a significant part of the person's values system. Beyond the legal requirement of accommodating sincerely held religious beliefs and making certain that employees are not discriminated against because of those beliefs is the very real need to appreciate how religious differences and values can shape the workforce.

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Consider the following:

  1. How does the employer balance the rights of the employee who sincerely holds his Christian beliefs with the rights of the employee who is offended by listening to her co-worker discuss religion?
  2. What effect might a supervisor whose religion frowns upon celebrating holidays and birthdays in the workplace have upon the other employees who enjoy such events?
  3. What happens when employees unwittingly offend co-workers due to lack of information and knowledge of the custom, practices and beliefs of a certain religion?
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It is important to appreciate that employees who come from other countries are often used to a completely different style of management than what we typically see in this country. Certain skills and principals of management are uniformly valued across all cultures: integrity, sound judgment and execution. However, how a manager gets results, wins respect and leads employees can vary greatly from culture to culture.

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In studying different management styles, human resource and management professionals have learned that, although it is dangerous to generalize, certain themes emerge from culture to culture. In Japan, for example, communication may be more subtle and indirect; and managers tend to use consensus building techniques to create and direct change. Western management tends to be more authoritarian. In Latin America employees tend to receive specific direction. There is a hierarchical reporting structure and autocratic management style.

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If U.S. employees were managed the way workers from mainland China are used to being directed, they would probably consider it micromanagement. Workers in China expect specific directions and detailed explanations rather than broad goals. The culture is also considered to be more risk averse due to the ramifications of perceived failure. In the Middle East, business has a strong social component and people prefer to have a lot of face to face contact. Similar to Asian cultures, the Middle Eastern culture prefers less confrontation, more consensus and a more deliberate path to an end result.

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Appreciation and knowledge of these cultural influences can be very valuable in improving communication and productivity among a diverse work force. Similarly, encouraging employees to share information about past work experiences and cultural background can improve understanding and tolerance not only between management and employees but also among co-workers all of which is likely to improve morale and productivity.

Charla Bizios Stevens is an attorney in the Employment Law Practice Group at the law firm of McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, P.A. Charla can be reached at 603-628-1363 or [email protected]. The McLane Law Firm is the largest law firm in the State of New Hampshire, with offices in Concord, Manchester and Portsmouth.

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