Diversity in the Workplace: the Manager's Role

Diversity is a hot topic these days.  Companies have caught on that having a diverse workforce has tangible benefits, in addition to improving their corporate image.  Your organization probably even has something about diversity in its values or mission statement.  But what does diversity look like at the team level?  If you have only three people reporting to you and don't anticipate hiring anyone else anytime soon, how can you contribute to your company's diversity goals?

Managers are the most important influence on organizational diversity.  Historically, diversity studies have focused on recruiting and hiring, and to some extent on promotions or executive team stats.  However, recent research has made it clear that recruiting and hiring is only the beginning.  There is a lot more to creating a diverse organization than attending a few targeted job fairs.  The place where organizations are struggling is in retention, and that's where you come in.  

What does "diversity" really mean, especially in the team context?  When people refer to diversity in organizations, they're usually referring to racial or gender diversity.  For example, in Silicon Valley, there is a concern that while there is plenty of ethnic diversity in the front-line workforce, there is very little in the senior ranks, and women are drastically underrepresented at all levels.  

iversity can be more than those broad categories, though.  I would define a truly diverse organization as one where employees feel they can be themselves, just a little polished.  (We all have to act professionally, after all.)  Differences in perspective, style, experience, etc., are all welcomed and discussed openly in such an organization.  

As the team leader, you are an important influence in the kind of culture your team has.  While it isn't totally under your control, especially if you are new to the organization, there is a lot you can do to reinforce and model the kinds of behaviors you want to see.

Keep sarcasm and disparaging comments focused on the situation/work, not on other people.

It can be tempting to bond as a team by joking about an annoying department head or client who drives you all up a wall, but this can easily devolve into stereotyping or criticizing characteristics that might also apply to some members of the team.   

Get to know your team. 

In an ideal world, you would have an informal coffee chat (in an actual coffee shop, so it's neutral territory) with each of your employees at least once a quarter to catch up on how things are going and get to know them a little better.  Realistically, if you can just do this at least once for each person, you'll still be way ahead of a lot of managers.  The idea isn't to make them feel uncomfortable with a ton of personal questions but rather to find connections you may have.  You could even keep it totally work-focused if you think that will be better.  Just getting a better understanding of their prior experience would be really valuable.  It will help you appreciate what they bring to the team, and that will show in your interactions with them.  It may also help you find connections each employee might have with other members of the team.

Use a variety of communication methods, especially for really important messages.

It is not a bad thing to repeat yourself.  In fact, for key messages such as major priorities or strategic initiatives, repetition is imperative.  This doesn't mean you say the same thing every week, though.  It means that you need to use a variety of methods - e-mail, handouts in a meeting, verbal instructions in your one-to-ones with your employees, etc.  Different people have different communication preferences, and using a variety of methods will address those needs as well as ensure that you really are communicating as clearly as you think you are.

Nip issues in the bud.

If you hear an employee make an inappropriate joke or treat another employee disrespectfully, intervene immediately.  If it happens in front of the rest of the team, it's important to make sure everyone knows it wasn't okay.  Normally, feedback should be given privately, but in this case, it's crucial to defend the norm of respect.  You can soften by saying something like, "I'm sure you didn't mean to be disrespectful.  Can you rephrase your question with what you're really trying to say?"  or "....and that would be an example of 'things we don't joke about around here' - thanks for demo-ing that for us, Jake." or even "It's clear that there's some heat around this issue, and it's causing the conversation to become uncivil.  Let's take this offline so that we can discuss it in a less personal way."

Be careful about hiring for "culture fit."

It's natural that you would want to only hire people who will "fit in" with the team culture.  However, that can easily lead to hiring people who appear to be similar to the folks already on the team.  It's important to identify the commonalities that relate to the work, such as a passion for a particular mission, an ability to come up with innovative solutions, a knack for understanding customers, etc.  It's also a good idea to make sure that job requirements really are requirements, and not just proxies for something else.  For example, if the job requirements ask for a bachelor degree because writing and communication skills are important, see if you can change the requirement to actually state what is needed (writing and communication skills) so that it doesn't screen out a qualified candidate.  

Creating an environment where your employees can truly be themselves will help you to get better and more innovative results from your whole team. It will also be a more interesting place for everyone to work.

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