How to foster workplace diversity

Diversity is generally accepted as an asset to modern teams. Research has shown that it can result in greater innovation and market growth. Gender diversity often drives better financial results. And there’s no doubt that employers have better odds of hiring the right people when they consider a diverse talent pool.

But, making workplace diversity work poses challenges. These are a few common issues faced by diverse teams:

  • Minority groups feel undervalued and rarely speak up
  • Majority groups feel alienated by efforts to enhance diversity
  • Cultural conflicts arise and can distract teams from solving work problems
  • Team members create closed networks (or cliques)

Team leaders are responsible for alleviating concerns and steering their team in the right direction. To help manage diverse teams, leaders can ask themselves three questions:

  • How can I make all team members feel equally valued?
  • How can I facilitate collaboration between team members?
  • How can I always lead by example?

Here are a few things to consider to help foster diversity and improve team cohesion:

Understand the broad definition of diversity in the workplace

People often look at the meaning of diversity from a narrow perspective. Most think about gender, race or religion. But they might overlook other aspects like age, disability, language, personality and sexual orientation. These are types of inherent diversity, attributes we are born with. There’s also acquired diversity, ways of thinking acquired by experience. This kind of diversity matters too. For example, people with cross-cultural competence (the ability to understand and work with people from many different cultures) can be great allies in building an inclusive workplace.

All types of diversity can spark team conflict. For example, psychologists are more likely to associate with other psychologists and engineers tend to communicate better with other engineers. Age differences or socioeconomic backgrounds might undermine open discussion and team spirit. Addressing all aspects of diversity will ensure no one is left out and that team members work better together.

Related: Diversity and inclusion in the workplace: removing the barriers to finding top talent

Be conscious of your own prejudices

Leaders can’t lead by example unless they fully embrace diversity themselves. Even if they have the best intentions, they might still unwittingly make assumptions based on stereotypes and biases. Identifying these cognitive barriers is critical. You can try taking Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) as a first step. It can show if you have unconscious preferences for a specific race, gender, religion or other group.

When it comes to hiring, promoting and rewarding team members, think hard about why you make particular decisions. The criteria you use should be job-related and verified by data. It’s good practice to try different perspectives and make sure you have all the information you need to avoid relying on stereotypes.

Be alert for inappropriate behaviors

When male team members talk about women at work, some might just think it’s harmless gossip. When someone talks about another’s disability or religious beliefs, it could be deemed an innocent comment. Yet, casual comments and simple teasing can make others uncomfortable. ‘Microaggressions,’ or unintentional slights of minority groups, can be perceived as offensive and damage workplace relationships.

Ignoring these behaviors can undermine a respectful and harassment-free workplace. Try to eliminate these conversations by having a meaningful talk with your team members whenever necessary.

Don’t treat equality as uniformity

Many people who believe in equality vow they’ll treat everyone the same. It’s a good practice in selection processes. For example, using ‘blind’ hiring with the help of platforms like Gapjumpers. Blind hiring focuses on meritocracy and skills. It can be an excellent way to increase diversity. But, the same kind of ‘blind’ approach doesn’t always work well when managing teams.

Some employees need different treatment than others. For example, if you decide to take your team out to lunch, don’t choose a place where vegetarian or muslim employees can’t find anything to eat. Older people might need more coaching in new technologies. Employees who have relocated from a different country might need additional support until they adapt to new cultural norms. A tailored approach is often better than a blind one.

Build reward systems that cover the needs of all team members

Usually, policies and programs address the majority’s needs. For example, if you think most of your employees are interested in bonuses instead of other rewards, your official policy is likely to reflect that.

Yet, different people are motivated by different things. Having a universal reward and promotion system could be useful to set some standards that team leaders can follow. But, each team leader should also pay attention to what individual team members want. Some want to be rewarded with more money, while others value greater autonomy. Some want to boost their promotion chances, while others want awards and recognition. By understanding the diverse needs and goals of their team members, team leaders can tailor their management approach to motivate and engage different kinds of employees.

Coach your team in conflict management

At the end of the day, most teams are diverse. People come from different cultures, vote for opposing political parties or have diverse tastes in music. Unless your team descends to groupthink, conflict is unavoidable, even in seemingly homogenous teams. Conflict isn’t always a bad thing. Disagreements can breed innovation and positive change.

Conflict management skills are highly sought-after because they help teams achieve positive outcomes through unpleasant situations. Coach your team members in various conflict resolution techniques and be prepared to assist them. Encourage all team members, regardless of what groups they belong to, to speak up and share their concerns on a daily basis. Training in communication is also vital to every team and can even have better results than workplace diversity training.

Give feedback and explain your decisions

Giving meaningful feedback can be difficult, but it’s necessary. All team members need to know what they’re doing right and what they can improve. You should also be transparent about important decisions to keep speculation to a minimum. For example, if you give someone a promotion, some employees might presume you did it because of favoritism or a workplace diversity program. This kind of speculation can cause a lot of harm. If you are very clear about your objective criteria for promotion, salary increases and other rewards, employees will know you aren’t making business decisions based on personal biases.

Being transparent with your team can help you too. If you’re obliged to explain the reasoning behind your decisions, you’re more likely to avoid subjective criteria and spot any unconscious biases early on.

Keep in mind that feedback is a two-way street. Encourage your team to talk about their problems and ideas. Your door should always be open for them.

Get your team members to collaborate with diverse colleagues

When team members get to know each other better, it’s likely their prejudices will recede. They’ll start seeing each other as individuals rather than members of diverse groups. It’s a good idea to frequently pair up team members with cultural, educational or other differences for small projects, when possible. For example, if you want to hire a new employee, assemble a hiring team with workplace diversity in mind. A diverse hiring team can also help you hire more people from minority groups, since most women and ethnic groups prefer companies who show they have a diverse workforce.

It might also be useful to get your entire team to collaborate with other teams, whether it’s for a corporate event or a large scale work project. In international companies, this could help teams build cross-cultural competence.

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Nikoletta Bika

Nikoletta Bika is a senior writer at Workable and holds an MSc in HR. She writes about all things HR and recruiting, with a particular interest in bias, data, technology and the future of work. She hates meaningless jargon and dreams about space travel. She tweets @Nikoletta_Bika.

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