Diversity in the workplace: 5 common challenges and how to overcome them

November 15, 2019

In our globalised world, many of us are fortunate enough to experience diversity on a daily basis outside of work. For some of us, once we get to work, it may be a different situation. Management and colleagues may be from a similar cultural background, ability and gender. 

Research by MIT showed homogeneous groups of people are not as thorough when it comes to making decisions as diverse groups with differing points of view. In our fast paced global economy, studies have shown that diverse companies also produce 19% higher revenue because they create more innovative teams with new ideas.

All said, diversifying a homogeneous business requires change and, in business, change can be difficult. Even carefully managed change can have unexpected consequences. Although there are many positives associated with developing a more diverse workforce, there are also going to be challenges. Some of the most common challenges include:

There are many forms of diversification that will help innovation within your business. One of the most effective is to encourage people from different cultural backgrounds to work together. However, the way we communicate is very much dictated by our cultural background. If a team member comes from a culture of deference to those of higher authority it can be difficult to speak up in a meeting or truly express their point of view.  
We are by nature, creatures of habit. As a whole we avoid risk - it kept us alive in ancient times when uncalculated risk could result in injury or death. Although this is not the case when it comes to change at work, the fear can remain. The ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mentality is a challenge faced when diversifying the workplace.
In some cultures, the style of work may cause conflict. In some work environments, management are expected to dictate and employees to follow orders. Style can vary in other ways too. For example, in Sweden ‘Fike’ or coffee and cake is an important part of the day. It provides an opportunity for employees to communicate in a more relaxed environment. In other countries, taking a break like that may be viewed as wasting time.
Another way in which a diverse group may differ is in attitudes to work. In some cultures, it is important to be at work for long hours, in others productivity is what counts. Looking at countries in the OECD, working hours can vary significantly. 
It is not surprising that diversification can cause issues in the workplace if not handled sensitively. Existing staff members can feel threatened and new employees may not know where they are supposed to fit in. This may be particularly difficult in companies with a long serving workforce. 

There is a lot an international human resource manager can do to help overcome the challenges associated with workplace diversification.   

While this may appear an obvious point, for some businesses unconscious bias and other factors can limit the number of minority candidates who make it through the hiring process. Consider implementing ‘blind hiring’ practices in your recruitment process. 

Blind hiring is any technique that anonymises the hiring process. This could include removing identifying demographic information from resumes, having candidates complete anonymous pre-hire testing or even complete a blind interview through chat bot or questionnaire. Research in the US and published in Administrative Science Quarterly showed that white sounding names on a resume were 75% more likely to receive a call to interview than those with Asian names. 

Diversity training has been implemented across many of the most successful Fortune 500 businesses over the last few years. Although it may appear to be a solution, studies on the results have been mixed. If your business wants to see real change when it comes to diversity and inclusion, ensure at least one of each employees objectives relates to promoting diversity and inclusion. This could be completing a project with a diverse team, mentoring someone from a different background or participating in team building activities.
Not everyone in diverse teams will communicate in the same way. It is key to your team's success that everyone's voice is heard. Begin by creating a communication friendly space. Lead by example and show others in your workplace that regardless of the cultural norms they may be used to, they do not need to be afraid to speak up or share thoughts and ideas at work. Enable people to communicate effectively by whichever method they feel most comfortable whether that is by email, in person or using a collaboration tool. Consider an anonymous communication tool for more sensitive problems and ensure people understand there will be no repercussions for reporting genuine issues.

If you have an employee satisfaction survey, ensure it includes questions related to  diversity and inclusion. Culture Amp suggest questions like:

  • I feel like I belong at this company?
  • I can voice a different opinion without negative consequences?
  • Perspectives like mine are included in decision making?
Finally, know that you are increasing diversity and inclusion with surveys that allow those in your organisation to share their demographic information. Use this data to measure quarter on quarter success when it comes to improving diversity.

Improving diversity matters, it matters most because we all deserve to be celebrated for our abilities and to have our voices heard but it is also likely to help your business grow in success.

If you are a global business, you are more likely to have some diversity in your workforce already. Remember to protect your expat’s health and wellbeing while they are working abroad with international health insurance.