Experts Say Any Problems Can Be Solved With Right Attitude

By Annie Deck - Business First

Executives and personnel managers today must contend with the ramifications of a work force that is becoming less predominantly white and male.

"The American work force is changing radically," said Debra Connelly, assistant professor of organization and human resources at the University at Buffalo School of Management.

Connelly said that half of American workers entering the job force today are female, and African-Americans and Latinos each make up about 13 percent of new workers. She said the numbers of Latino job entrants and workers who are new immigrants to the United States will grow rapidly in the next 20 years.

"Companies are looking at these changing demographics," Connelly said. "They're saying, 'Look, if we want to continue to get the best possible people to staff our organization, we're really going to have to look at some issues of trying to recruit form these rapidly growing classes of folks.'"

Diversity in the workplace makes good business sense.

"In general, you're not adding a lot of value by adding a person who is just like everybody else who already works there," Connelly said. "It's an advantage to have more ideas to be able to select from."

More friction?

While changes in demographics and cultural attitudes have resulted in a push toward a more diverse and inclusive work force, this new climate sometimes opens up more opportunities for friction in the workplace.

Connelly said even companies that go to great lengths to recruit women and minorities and create support networks to keep them are experiencing a turnover rate for those employees that is two to three times that of white males.

"The causes of this turnover are generally issues that are quite subtle," she explained. "It's not open discrimination, it's not open sexual harassment, it's not an openly hostile environment. It's that organizations develop ways of working over time that some groups of people are comfortable with and other groups of people find create barriers to success."

For example, companies that make promotions contingent on traveling or relocation may be inadvertently discriminating against women or working parents whose family responsibilities require stability of location and a regular schedule.

Lindy Korn, president and CEO of Diversity Training Workplace Solutions in Williamsville, said: "People become so used to their work environment they forget how to be respectful. But there's been a cultural change in recent years, and we have zero tolerance. We expect a more respectful environment, so we need to understand the law from feeling or thinking point of view."

Korn, an attorney who was formerly counsel to the New York State Liquor Authority and is a past workers' compensation commissioner, said those experiences exposed her to the many stresses that interfere with worker productivity.

Making corrections

Korn's 2-year-old business provides needs assessment, preventative training, investigation, mediation and educational counseling or coaching for companies seeking diversity training as a preventative or corrective measure. Much of the company's work thus far, she says, has focused on sexual harassment issues.

Two of Korn's clients found diversity training to be highly effective in educating their staffs.

"It's not enough to discourage sexual harassment; you have to take proactive measures against it," said Leonard Lenihan, commissioner of personnel for Erie County.

Stephanie Cowart, director of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, said, "I absolutely believe it's given (my staff) a new appreciation for each other."

How can your company avoid the pitfalls that may attend staff diversity?

First of all, Connelly said, "It's absolutely essential that the chief operating officer or chief executive be 100 percent behind such an initiative to create a more diverse work force within that organization. And they have to be visible, and they have to walk the walk... Just saying that it's the right thing to do is not enough."

Another important element in managing conflict in the workplace is being able to tell the difference between interpersonal conflict, which tends to decrease productivity, and task-oriented conflict, which is often a boon to productivity and creativity. It's a simple but crucial distinction, Connelly said, and employees and supervisors must "understand how to keep one from becoming the other."

'Out of the loop'

Connelly said many companies consciously or otherwise promote an atmosphere of conflict avoidance that leaves women and minorities - who are generally, she said, more comfortable with conflict and dealing with the emotions that arise from confrontations than white males - feeling unsatisfied and "out of the loop."

Connelly and Korn agree that the keys to dealing with conflict are options, flexibility and openness.

"If you look at it as a win-lose proposition, then that's the way the problem is going to look," Connelly said. "But if you start thinking outside the box, and you say, 'Are there any win-wins here? Is there any way that we can solve this problem, not so that we're taking something away from one group in order to give to another?' then you may find a solution that makes everyone happy."

Options

Connelly used the example of religious holidays to illustrate how such an approach can work toward a companies strategic advantage. A corporation with a diverse staff can stay functioning 365 days a year, if need be, by letting employees choose the religious holiday they wish to celebrate rather than mandating standard holidays.

"The kindest thing anyone can do for someone is to give them options," said Korn, who recommends offering employees sabbaticals and creating a room for nursing mothers as ways to help employees balance their personal needs with their career. "It's incredibly empowering for the work force" to have a choice in such matters, she said.

Connelly and Korn said approaching employees openly and honestly is the best way to find our what problems they might be experiencing. Connelly recommends "reverse mentoring" - for example, assigning junior female employees to senior male executives - as an educational tool to help bigwigs understand their employees' situations and grievances.