Small Business

Ensuring Harmony Amidst Diversity


By Karen E. Klein Q: I would like to minimize miscommunications, value conflicts, and leadership missteps among our multicultural workforce. How can we overcome our differences and achieve our company's goals and objectives?

---- K.W, Colombo, Sri Lanka

A: The first step toward overcoming differences is to define and understand them in the broadest terms. If your workers represent various nationalities, ethnicities, and racial groups, that will be quite a task in itself. What is humorous to one person may be insulting to another. A business policy that may be perfectly acceptable to some will smack of dishonesty to others. If you define workplace diversity with even broader parameters -- including gender, sexual preferences, age, disability, and religion -- your job gets tougher because there is more to learn and monitor.

Consider having a human-resources professional do an analysis of your workforce, looking at what your employees' backgrounds have taught them about business ethics, worker interaction, workplace conduct, and professional integrity. Think about how you can be sensitive to each employee while demanding that all adhere to established rules for workplace conduct and business transactions. A diversity analysis can help you determine what impact your staff's differences will have on the overall success of your company, says Sharon Winston, a human-relations consultant and diversity trainer at Winston & Associates, which is based in Long Beach, Calif.

"Once an analysis has been conducted, you should look at [your company's] internal and external processes and procedures to determine which ones enable the differences to manifest, and then correct them," she says. "Lastly, your company should implement a companywide diversity-training program."

COMMON GROUND. Establishing a strong corporate culture within your company will make things easier, experts say. Certainly, your employees will bring their own world views and life experiences to their jobs, but if strong basic values are stated explicitly and practiced faithfully at the workplace, they'll have a shared point of reference and a baseline for how things should be done.

Maxine Fechter, a human-resources consultant with New York-based People Equities, was senior vice-president of a multinational company that set its own strong tone of tolerance. "Honesty, integrity, and individual respect were cornerstones wherever we did business, and applied to both our employees and our customers," Fechter recalls. "At the same time, we respected the cultural mores of each individual country, and so how these values were communicated or behaviors practiced were society specific."

For some background on human-resources issues, you might try checking with the Society for Human Resource Management, www.shrm.org, or browse through the HR links at Business.com www.business.com/directory/human_resources, which include good sources on topics like "diversity" and "cross-cultural communication." Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at smartanswers@businessweek.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.


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