When you step into your workplace, doesn't it look different than it did just a few years ago? Nationally, these are some of the changes we are experiencing. Women and minorities account for roughly 46 and 30 percent, respectively, of the U.S. workforce. 18.6 million physically and mentally challenged -- but able -- workers are in the workforce as well. An estimated 10 percent of the population is gay, lesbian or bisexual. Customers, colleagues, and staff will be increasingly made up of women and people of color.
America was once a microcosm of Europe. Now it's a microcosm of the world. We can no longer presume that the "typical" U.S. citizen traces his or her descent in a direct line from Europe. Whatever industry you work in, regardless of your position, tenure, or years on the job, your work environment is rapidly changing. Managing this diverse workforce is both our challenge and our opportunity.
What is meant by "diversity?" It's most commonly thought of in ethnic or racial terms, sometimes in terms of gender, age, or differences in physical ability. The wider view of diversity is more comprehensive. The concept incorporates not only differences in gender, age, ethnicity, race, and physical or mental ability, but religion, military status, and sexual orientation.
People have other differences, too, including those in lifestyle, culture, and education. We vary in the ways we process information, show respect to authority, and learn, think and reach agreements. To survive and to prosper, we must at least learn to be more tolerant of these differences. And better yet, learn to appreciate them. Tolerance, in this case, does not mean "to put up with," or "to endure" -- which is one part of its dictionary definition -- but is used in the word's broader sense: "sympathy for beliefs and practices differing from our own."
What you can do
Managing the workforce of today and the future requires new skills. What are some of the ways you can learn about the issues faced by the physically challenged, gay and lesbian employees, African Americans, or women in nontraditional fields, to name a few? Some basic sources of information include watching relevant public television or listening to public radio programs, reading culturally specific newspapers and magazines, and listening.
An atmosphere of flexibility and sensitivity will help all employees work better together. Sometimes the "little things" can make all the difference. At work, does your organization celebrate the holidays with Christmas trees? Honoring only Christian holidays leaves out those who celebrate Hanukkah, Kwaanza, and "Chinese New Year," all of which fall in the December/January time frame. (Chinese New Year, of course, can fall anywhere from late January to the middle of February, depending on the lunar calendar.) To help everyone celebrate and worship, floating or optional holidays can be implemented instead of a mandatory December 25 day off. This policy is more inclusive.
We need to watch our language -- not just the obvious slurs, but the slang, abbreviations and jargon. Employees have reported co-workers and even supervisors using offensive phrases, all of which build walls instead of bridges.
Don't make assumptions
How can we be sensitive if we are unaware of the concerns of others? Asking questions that are open and genuine go a long way to building better relationships. Asking is one part of the equation; the other is listening to and accepting the response.
The person most successful at navigating this new workforce will make fewer assumptions. There's no reason to suppose that everyone is married or wants to be -- or is heterosexual, for that matter. We don't all eat the same foods, either. All vegetarians are not the same, nor are they vegetarian for the same reasons.
Our changing mosaic is exciting: Diversity is here to stay. And our individual efforts toward working together will determine our status as a nation in the international marketplace of the future. The challenge seems overwhelming, but it need not be. Don't expect to be perfect or try to learn four new languages overnight. Start where you are. Get to know the different people around you. Individual one-to-one efforts really do matter. By embracing our differences, we can all make a difference.
U.S. Department of Labor. Quick Stats on Women Workers. 2009. http://www.dol.gov/wb/stats/main.htm
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment status of the civilian non-institutional population by race, Hispanic or Asian ethnicity, sex and age. July 2008. http://www.bls.gov/web/cpseea15.pdf.