Diversity and Inclusion

It's not a matter of political correctness


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Understanding Diversity and identifying cultural issues in the workplace

The Four Layers Model

This model helps to show how diversity is about much more than the obvious differences we see in people. It gives diversity a much deeper and broader meaning: it is the many different characteristics of people rather than just the ones that seem to create divisions amongst people.

 1. Personality: this includes a person’s likes and dislikes, values, and beliefs. Personality is shaped early in life and is both influenced by, and influences, the other three layers throughout our lifetime and career choices.

2. Internal dimensions: these include aspects of diversity over which we have no control (though "physical ability" can change over time due to choices we make to be active or not, or in cases of illness or accidents). This dimension is where many divisions between and among people exist. It is the focus of many diversity programmes. Here are the elements included are the first things we see in other people, such as race or gender and on which we make many assumptions and base judgments.

3. External dimensions: these include aspects of our lives which we have some control over, which might change over time, and which usually form the basis for decisions on careers and work styles. This layer often determines, in part, with whom we develop friendships and what we do for work. This layer also tells us a lot about whom we like to be with, and decisions we make in hiring, promotions, etc., at work.

4. Organizational dimensions: this layer concerns the aspects of culture found in a work setting. While much attention of diversity efforts is focused on the internal dimensions, issues of preferential treatment and opportunities for development or promotion are impacted by the aspects of this layer.

Why is Diversity important

South Africa’s workforce is a mixture of diverse cultures, religions and races.  It is easy then to see why understanding diversity is important for the well-being of working relationships. However, there are many other advantages to promoting diversity and reasons why diversity is important.

  • Better problem solving: there are different approaches and thinking styles applied to the same problem. This means fewer limitations and a wider view of possible solutions (and better solutions) as different sets of values, backgrounds and approaches are used
  • Ideas: the company has more choice of ideas that are put forward.
  • Efficiency and Productivity: for example, a woman will approach a problem differently than a man would. They are diverse in their thoughts and actions which increases what is possible for the company to achieve.
  • International success: it helps in promoting one's business and makes it possible to take it to an international level.  Taking the best bits of our different ‘worlds’ can lead to success. Our strength is our ability to do business with other parts of the world. 

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How important are the different layers of Diversity?

What do you think the nine most important things noticed about people in our society are? According to the book The 4 Minute Sell (Jane Elsea) they are rated in order of importance, as follows:

1. Skin color
2. Gender
3. Age
4. Appearance
5. Facial Expressions
6. Eye contact
7. Movement
8. Personal Space
9. Touch

When we encounter one another, we notice, make judgements and decisions on how to interact with that person based on these nine factors.  Don’t forget, these reactions are based on split-second assessments of others. It is these decisions that influence our relationships.

What is culture?

Culture is the totality of values, beliefs, and behaviours common to a large group of people. A culture may include shared language and folklore, ideas and thinking patterns, and communication styles – the “truths” accepted by members of the group. Members of a culture have similar expectations of life.

Further, Culture can be defined as the body of learned beliefs, traditions, principles and guides for behaviour that are shared among members of a particular group. Culture serves as a road map for both making sense of and interacting with the world.

Another way we can define culture is to say that culture is the behavioural software “that programs us all.” 

The impact of culture

  • Culture determines our behaviour and attitudes
  • No one is free from culture
  • Most cultures are never written down
  • We interpret other people’s behaviour through our own cultural softwar

Psychologists say we are, to a large extent, “culturally programmed” by the age of 3!

Our cultural filters

Because each of us is different, we see and interpret behaviour through our own cultural filter. One effect of our cultural programming is that it puts us “on automatic.”

When we were children learning about the world, some of the messages we received about people who are different from us were misinformation. 

Some of the misinformation constituted stereotypes – eg (Boys don’t cry)
and the lists we made earlier. The stereotypes became “mental tapes” that affected what we thought and how we felt about people who were different from ourselves. Those tapes also affected how we responded to people who were different from us. Those responses became automatic. And as adults, most of us are still on automatic.

When we stereotype, we place a person in a particular “mental file,” not based on information gained through knowledge about or personal experience of the particular person. Rather, we assign the person to a “mental file” based on what we believe about a group to which the person belongs.

Once learned, those stereotypes are called up instantly in our minds. Stereotypes exist for every group of people imaginable. Even though we may not like to admit that we stereotype people, we all do it. Stereotyping makes it easier to function in a world filled with unknowns. Stereotypes help us organize our thinking and manage massive amounts of information. We classify the infinite variety of human beings into a convenient handful of “types.” Once in place, stereotypes are difficult to undo. It’s hard to get off “automatic”.

Identifying Cultural Issues in the Workplace

Of all the differences between employees, cultural differences most probably play the most important and challenging role. Culture can be described as a set of values, practices, traditions or beliefs a group shares, whether due to age, race or ethnicity, religion or gender. Other factors that contribute to workplace diversity and cultural differences in the workplace are differences attributable to work styles, education or disability.

Every culture is different, and has different styles of etiquette. Knowing the right etiquette can help build positive workplace relationships.

The sources of conflict could fall into any of the following areas:

  • Language – communication can be hampered due to misunderstandings.
  • Dress - Some cultures have specific clothing such as headscarves that are worn at all times.
  • Religious practices - Some religions require time during work each day for prayer or time off for special religious days.
  • Customs - Some cultures can or can't have specific foods and drinks, or may have rules about how food is prepared.
  • Social values - Ideas about appropriate social and sexual behaviour, work ethics, wealth and personal growth vary between cultures.
  • Family obligations - Some cultures have high family priorities which may sometimes conflict with work.
  • Non-verbal behaviour – Eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures and how people interpret them vary between cultures

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Expectations & Solutions

Different cultures have varying expectations about personal space and physical contact.  Some cultures greet each other by kissing each other on both cheeks or hugging, where some will shake hands. Some cultures do not enjoy someone’s presence close to them, where others have no problem standing shoulder-to-shoulder.

Addressing cultural issues

Leadership is the driving force of workplace culture. Management sets the behaviour standards through their words and actions, along with policies and procedures. 

  • Acknowledge differences
  • Develop Intercultural Sensitivity
  • Focus on behaviour

Dealing with intercultural communication involves including everyone in the process. By focusing on observable behaviour and not attitudes, employees maintain a productive work environment.