Modern Management Challenges

Managing Diversity

Diversity at Work

Effective organisations should appreciate and value the difference of a diverse workforce. Despite many pieces of legislation around the world that protect the rights of many diversity groups, still the challenge for management is creating a genuinely inclusive workforce. A key issue lies in changing existing expectations of who and what characteristics constitute an ideal worker.

Employees who are not white, middle-aged, comparatively healthy males, soon learn that looking and acting ‘normal’ is critical for inclusion in most workplaces. Women who work in male dominated workspaces find that the ‘burden of proof’ is theirs to prove their competency. They might also discover that they lack any significant support from their organisation to balance their work and life when they move into roles more commonly undertaken by men. Managing their work-life balance is largely considered to be their own responsibility. It is up to the employees, to find ways to conform to existing, potentially non-inclusive workplace norms.

The various diversity groups each find ways to fit in at work. Workers with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) perform emotion work in an attempt to comply with the normative expectations of their workplace. They may change jobs in order to find employment in an organisation where they ‘fit in,’ but may end up being under-deployed. Workplaces have the option to implement strategies to help employees balance their disability and work but this is not commonly seen as a responsibility of the workplace.

Research on the workplace experiences of women with chronic illness shows that the labour market power is important to their success at work. The significance of power through collective action is important for workers today and has proved to be important for diversity groups via trade union membership throughout the last century. Important work related and social justice gains for diversity groups were achieved through the associational power provided through trade union membership. Acting collectively is important for diversity groups particularly as social support from others in the same diversity group helps individuals to form a positive diverse identity. Negative reactions of others in the workplace, for example work supervisors, can also impact on the development of identity.

As workforce diversity increases and workers become aware of diverse identities, challenges become evident about how their needs should be met. When we approach diversity in the workforce this way, it is tempting to think that more ‘individualised’ identities make collective action less likely. Although, collective action is how workers achieve their goals. And while many of the gains for diverse social identity groups have been achieved through their collective power in various forms, it is ultimately through collective industrial organisation and action that they will achieve gains.

Some groups exhibit multiple diversities or superdiversity, which compound the difficulties experienced in particular working circumstances. The combination of identification with a particular diversity group and precarious work creates a sometimes difficult set of circumstances for working holidaymakers, young workers and older workers too. Where organisations provide strategies that reflect the changing needs of a diverse workforce such as opportunities for flexible working, redeployment of workers with changing needs and career building programmes for young workers, they have the opportunity to start moving towards developing a diversity climate. Hofhuis, van der Rijt and Vlug (2016, p. 1) state that ‘diversity climate [is] defined as an organisational climate characterised by openness towards and appreciation of individual differences’. A move towards developing a diversity climate within organisations would suggest that underlying values of openness and individual differences would be promoted within the organisation.

Shalene Werth is Senior Lecturer in the School of Management and Enterprise at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. Her research covers both disability and chronic illness in the workplace and also the experience of students with disability in higher education.

Charlotte Brownlow is Associate Professor in the School of Psychology and Counselling at The University of Southern Queensland, Australia. Her research interests focus on understandings of diversity and difference and the impacts that constructions of these have on the crafting of individual identities, particularly for individuals identifying as being on the autism spectrum.

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