A multicultural work force is one made up of men and women from a variety of different cultural and racial backgrounds. The labor force of any country is a reflection of the population from which it is drawn, despite some distortions that may be caused by discrimination or cultural bias in hiring. In the United States, the population has continued to grow more racially and ethnically diverse in the last decades and this diversity is now reflected in the work place. Managing this diversity in such a way that the benefits are maximized and the challenges minimized is an important aspect of managing any business today.


Data from the U.S. Census Bureau on the racial and ethnic breakdown of the population in 2000 (the most recent decennial census data) show that those self identified as White represented 75.1 percent of the population, down from 85.9 percent in 1980. Those listing themselves as Black in 2000, represented 12.3 percent of the population, up slightly from 11.8 in 1980. Hispanics, who may be White or Black, accounted for 12.5 percent of the population in 2000, up substantially from 6.6 percent in 1980. Asian Americans in 2000 were 3.6 percent of the population, up from 1.7 percent in 1980. In some regions of the country, these race and ethnicity concentrations are even more striking. In California, for example, the Hispanic population in 2000 represented 32.4 percent of the population while in Georgia, 28.7 percent of the population was African American. These statistical data alone do not tell the whole story, although the colorful picture they paint is clear.

A great deal of diversity within the racial and ethnic divisions measured by the Census Bureau also exists—Italian Americans, for example, are likely to have very different cultural habits than do immigrants from Russia or from any one of the countries in the Middle East. Hispanics from Argentina are also likely to differ quite a lot in cultural habits from Hispanics whose origin is Puerto Rico. But these additional levels of diversity only add complexity to the picture. The overall trend is clearly towards greater racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity in both the general population and the work force.


These work force demographic trends are significant and when combined with an ever more globally focused business community they create a new emphasis on managing diversity. In this environment business leaders must think more and more about how best to manage a multicultural work force, sell to an increasingly diverse customer base, and deal with suppliers who represent a variety of world views. These tasks are not always easy since diversity is a two edged sword. On the one hand, with diversity come things like an increased numbers of world perspectives and new ways of looking at and attempting to solve problems. If fact, when properly encouraged, a diversity of views can serve to prevent the negative and myopic results of "group think." On the other hand, cultural differences often lead to difficulties with communications and a rise in the friction that can develop as people with different expectations and habits interact. It is important, consequently, for an organization to create an environment in which the positives of diversity are harnessed and the negatives are minimized as much as possible.

Implementing change is always a challenge. People generally find change disconcerting and work to avoid it. In addition, not everyone within an organization values diversity and some may even find it threatening. Given such realities, companies need to go beyond simple recognition of cultural diversity to active diversity management. Managing diversity is a comprehensive process for developing an environment that works for all employees. Diversity management is an inclusive process and should not be viewed as an us/them kind of problem to be solved. Rather, it should be viewed and presented as a valuable resource to be fostered and used. Incorporating a positive and welcoming attitude towards diverse opinions and outlooks usually means making changes to existing practices and habits. But these changes can be explained in such a way as to highlight their value to the organization as a whole and to the ability of staff members to expand their roles.

In many ways, cultural diversity in the work place mirrors many of the same issues at play in the realm of international business. In international business interactions, people who have learned differing conceptions of normative behavior are forced to suspend judgment of one another. Cultural norms shift relative to language, technological expectations, social organization, face-saving, authority conception, nonverbal behavior and the perception of time.


A company that wishes to encourage diversity and a multiplicity of view points should start by restating the common goals and objectives of the company. This may seem contradictory but it is not. Establishing a well-defined sphere in which diverse ideas and view points may be freely expressed in the pursuit of a common goal is an essential part of encouraging a free flow of ideas.

Once this groundwork is laid, the following items provides a checklist for implementing policies that will foster and encourage a harmonious, multicultural work force.

  • Start at the top—A commitment to the idea of an open and receptive work place must be seen from the owners and managers of a company early on, preferably before official policies are announced.
  • Communicate in writing—Company policies that explicitly forbid prejudice and discriminatory behavior should be included in employee manuals, mission statements, and other written communications. This has been referred to by some as a way of broadcasting the diversity message internally in order to create a common language for all members of the organization.
  • Training programs—Training programs designed to engender appreciation and knowledge of the characteristics and benefits of multicultural work forces have become ubiquitous in recent years. Two types of training are most popular: awareness and skill-building. The former introduces the topic of managing diversity and generally includes information on work force demographics, the meaning of diversity, and exercises to get participants thinking about relevant issues and raising their own self-awareness. The skill-building training provides more specific information on cultural norms of different groups and how they may affect communications and behavior. New employee orientation programs are also ideal for introducing workers to the company's expectations regarding treatment of fellow workers, whatever their cultural or ethnic background.
  • Recognize individual differences—Do not make the mistake of assuming that differences are always 'cultural.' There are several sources of difference. Some relate personality, aptitude, or competence. Too many managers tend to fall back on the easy 'explanation' that individual behavior or performance can be attributed to the fact that someone is 'Hispanic' or 'Jewish' or 'a woman.' This sort of conclusion is more likely to reflect bias and intellectual laziness than it does culturally sensitive managers.
  • Actively seek input from minority groups—Soliciting the opinions and involvement of minority groups on important work committees, etc., is beneficial not only because of the contributions that they can make, but also because such overtures confirm that they are valued by the company. Serving on relevant committees and task forces can increase their feelings of belonging to the organization. Conversely, relegating minority members to superfluous committees or projects can trigger a downward spiral in relations between different cultural groups.
  • Revamp reward systems—An organization's performance appraisal and reward systems should reinforce the importance of effective diversity management. This includes assuring that minorities are provided with adequate opportunities for career development.
  • Make room for social events—Company-sponsored social events—picnics, softball games, volleyball leagues, bowling leagues, Christmas parties, etc.—can be tremendously useful in getting members of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds together and providing them with opportunities to learn about one another.
  • Flexible work environment—Flexible work environments may have particularly beneficial results with people from nontraditional cultural backgrounds because their approaches to problems are more likely to be different from past norms.
  • Don't assume similar values and opinions—In the absence of reliable information there is a well-documented tendency for individuals to assume that other people are 'like them.' This is almost always an inappropriate assumption; for those who manage diverse work forces this tendency towards cultural assumptions can prove particularly damaging.
  • Continuous monitoring—Experts recommend that business owners and managers establish and maintain systems that can continually monitor the organization's policies and practices to ensure that it continues to be a good environment for all employees. Be flexible and apply the lessons learned as new situations arise and are managed.

Increased diversity may present a challenge to business leaders who must work to maximize the opportunities that diversity provides while minimizing its costs. The organization that achieves this objective will create an environment in which all employees are able to contribute to their fullest potential, and in which the 'value in diversity' can be fully realized.


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