What is diversity management?

A good diversity manager views differences as a resource, and is aware that employees may need adaptations, according to a Norwegian researcher.

On the one hand, certain personality traits characterize people who handle cultural differences effectively, and these traits can also be used to describe good diversity managers. On the other hand, some managerial forms can have negative consequences for employees, especially those with a minority background, explains Gro Mjeldheim Sandal, a professor at the University of Bergen. (Photo: Marit Hommedal, UiB).

“Of course you can equate diversity management with good management. But diversity management also means something more,” says Gro Mjeldheim Sandal, a professor at the University of Bergen.

Diversity management is more than a catchphrase

“Good management may be different in various parts of working life, but diversity management means that the organization makes a conscious effort to develop and utilize the opportunities found in a workplace comprised of employees with different backgrounds. It has to do with priorities and taking specific steps to recruit, retain and take advantage of employees’ diversity. Such an effort will trickle down into the organization to the individual managers.”

Sandal emphasizes that if the organization does not make a conscious effort, employee diversity will not necessarily create any added value in and of itself.

“For the individual manager, good diversity management means that the manager makes active use of employees’ different experiences and perspectives, such as when we hire researchers from abroad who may have different ideas about teaching methods and research organization. If the manager is mainly concerned with keeping the wheels turning or making sure everything is ‘business as usual’, the benefits of diversity can easily disappear,” she says.

“The term ‘diversity’ is not simple. It quickly becomes an empty concept when it’s used as a catchphrase to mean that diversity is good.”

“Inclusion is a keyword”

In addition, good diversity managers are aware of the needs that employees may have for adaptations, and they are prepared to handle group dynamics in a way that turns differences into a strength rather than a hurdle.

“What kind of adaptations do you mean?”

“This could be everything from employees’ needs related to care of aging parents, time off for breastfeeding or reduced work capacity due to fasting, such as during Ramadan. Employees with physical disabilities may also require adaptations. If you have to climb a long staircase to reach the coffee machine, you might miss out on opportunities to talk informally with colleagues,” says Sandal.

“What does it mean to manage group dynamics?”

“Group dynamics refers to how groups function. Who is inside and outside the informal social networks? Maybe a few individuals dominate discussions so that differing opinions are not voiced and good decision-making is prevented. In general, minorities feel excluded more often, and studies show that this has negative consequences for their health and their connection to the workplace. Inclusion is a keyword in good diversity management.”

A decisive attitude, in which a manager says “I firmly believe that we must not discriminate”, is not enough, according to Sandal:

“Diversity management involves an active approach at all levels of the organization, and therefore entails far more than general catchphrases that most of us can agree on. Diversity is often upheld as a positive value within the organization and by the individual manager. In practice, however, very little is done about it.”

Active management can prevent discrimination

When it comes to diversity in working life, we often focus on characteristics that may have a detrimental impact on job opportunities, career prospects and treatment of employees in the workplace. Which characteristics come into play can vary over time and between cultures and organizations. Gender, ethnicity, age and disability are relevant in a Norwegian context, according to Sandal.

“Some employers are sceptical about hiring employees who need adaptations, such as people with second-language difficulties or physical challenges. But it’s important to understand that most of us will require work-related adaptations in the course of our lives. This may involve mental health problems, growing older, and caring for small children or sick parents.”

“When is it discrimination?”

“We know that some groups have worse prospects than others, and this often applies to ethnic minorities. Some groups get poorer treatment in working life, for example, with regard to hiring and career development, and this may constitute discrimination. However, there are often subtle processes that make it hard to put a finger on what is actually happening.”

“For groups at a greater disadvantage than others, this is not necessarily something that will work itself out. In these cases it’s crucial to have active management.”

“But what if this management approach intensifies differences or even creates differences by looking for them?”

“Of course a person can easily feel stigmatized by being given special consideration. This is precisely why managers must create a workplace climate that has a positive attitude towards the different situations and needs of employees. This may entail gender, language or age,” says Sandal.

“Today it’s Ahmed who must be given special consideration. Yesterday it was Sigrid, and tomorrow it might be you. Studies show that a positive workplace climate results in positive mental health outcomes.”

Diversity management involves tapping into the potential found in our differences, but it also entails making adaptations. Throughout life, some employees will have physical challenges or mental health problems, some must care for children or aging parents, and others will need time off from work for holidays, breastfeeding or Norwegian language training. (Illustration: iStockphoto)

Five qualities of a good manager

Research in organizational psychology has identified five personality traits that characterize people who manage cultural differences in a positive way. These can also be used to describe good diversity managers: openness and curiosity, empathy, social initiative, flexibility and emotional stability.

“It is probably a combination of personality traits and social skills, in addition to attitudes and interests, that determines who the good diversity managers are. However, very few people are born managers, and employers should therefore make resources available, such as arenas where managers can get advice on how to handle difficult personnel cases and conflict,” explains Sandal.

“Research indicates, though, that leadership development works best for managers who are already doing a good job. Certainly not everyone benefits from training like this! As a result, we should also emphasize personal qualifications when we recruit managers in academia.”

Evasive, passive managers

Together with her research group in Bergen, Sandal has developed a model describing various approaches that managers can have towards diversity. The research group has studied the connections between various managerial forms and employees’ health and connection to the workplace. Sandal illustrates this by describing two forms of management that may have negative consequences for employees, especially those with a minority background:

1. The manager has the same requirements and expectations for all the employees, regardless of a person’s specific situation. In other words, the manager is not willing to make adaptations for individual needs. In practice, this may mean that meetings are held without giving consideration to employees who need to pick up their children from pre-school or those with second-language difficulties. The level of tolerance is low, and the manager shows little interest in hearing different points of view and perspectives. This managerial form is often correlated with low job satisfaction and a weak sense of belonging at the workplace, according to data from immigrants in Norway.

2. Laissez faire is the term used to describe passive, inattentive managers who avoid dealing with problems. Perhaps there is a long-time academic employee who does not speak Norwegian well enough to serve as an examiner or perform administrative duties. A laissez faire manager will typically avoid discussing the problem with the individual, and instead let the employees find their own solution.

“This second-mentioned form of management can easily arise at the universities if the manager is not motivated to assume a leadership role. It might be that the person has been pressured into the role or that it’s that person’s ‘turn’ to be the manager. Many studies, including our own, have shown that the laissez faire approach can have quite harmful effects on the employees’ health and work motivation.”

More internationally recruited managers

“We need managers in academia who feel called to take on a leadership role and who have trust and legitimacy among the employees. This is why I’m generally in favour of having elected managers at all levels. However, these should be individuals who want to be leaders and who are concerned about people.”

Sandal thinks it is positive that the universities are concerned with recruiting internationally.

“But the absence of international employees at the management level and on boards and committee is striking. Their participation in such arenas is critical for understanding the organization and influencing decisions. In order for us to exploit the potential of international recruitment, it’s important to consider how international employees can be included in a more effective way. I also firmly believe that participating in decision-making processes creates a stronger connection to the organization.”

Diversity as comfort

According to researcher Åse Røthing, the concept of diversity can be used as a portal to examining power relations and discrimination, even though it may be perceived as a “feel-good” term.

Sandal also emphasizes that tolerance and adaptations are only one aspect of diversity management:

“No, the concept is not related to comfort, but instead is a strategic effort to draw out the benefits of the employees’ diversity.”

“We believe that diversity creates the potential to solve problems in a better way, and thus is a clear advantage. By the same token, differences can also be fertile ground for destructive conflicts and frustrations that harm the working environment. The manager plays a key role in this regard,” says Sandal.

Can academia learn from the business sector?

In her work with the Society and Workplace Diversity Research Group, Sandal has studied everything from recruitment and management issues to how various immigrant groups have adjusted to life in Norway.

“We are interested in doing more research on academia. A main task of the universities is to develop the expertise needed by working life. A measure of our success is whether our former students are hired in positions that match their qualifications,” she says.

One study showed that extremely well-educated employees from some non-Western countries often found themselves in jobs far below their level of expertise. I think the universities can focus more on the obstacles to career development for these groups.”

The psychology professor points to the talent programme, Global Future, run by the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO).

“This is a talent programme for immigrants with a high level of education which addresses issues such as working life culture, management, rhetoric and self-development. Perhaps the universities have something to learn from this programme?”

“We have followed up the career development of the participants who completed the talent programme, and we were curious as to whether there was still a difference, for these participants, between those from Asian and African countries on the one hand and those from the US and Western Europe on the other.”

But after the Global Future programme, the traditional divisions in career development disappeared.

“There was no difference between ethnicities,” says Sandal, who emphasizes that it is important to take into account that the results are based on a small sample.

“The programme provides a career platform in which the participants learn about cultural codes and working and social life – experiences that universities can benefit from.”

Translated by Connie Stultz.

The Researcher

Gro Mjeldheim Sandal is a professor in the Department of Psychosocial Science at the Faculty of Psychology, University of Bergen.

For over 10 years Sandal has studied diversity as the chair of the Society and Workplace Diversity Research Group in the Department of Psychosocial Science. The group has studied the personality traits, qualities and areas of expertise that characterize a good diversity manager.

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