In January, we observe the annual celebration of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. We find that diversity has become a key value in many sectors of life in the 21st century. Even in central Illinois, a more stable environment historically, the population characteristics are changing from primarily Caucasian to a more diverse mix of ethnic backgrounds.
Often, institutional culture can’t keep up with these fundamental changes in types of people. After all, people from rural areas have a different outlook on life than those who grew up in the city or suburbs. Someone from India or Mexico has a profoundly different outlook on life and work than an African-American or a European-descended person. A person with a physical limitation has experienced life differently than those who generally don’t struggle with their bodies.
As a result, there are differences in experiences and expectations that can have an effect on organizations and businesses. From their backgrounds, diverse people approach work output and productivity differently. They work in groups and teams with varying approaches. They communicate in various ways. They behave differently and take dissimilar approaches to choices and decisions.
So diversity can present basic ethical challenges. Sometimes, business leaders think basic training in company policies is enough to help different kinds of people understand together the essential rules and expectations of the workplace. That may be true on the surface, but behavioral expectations don’t register with people from other cultures who play by very different rules. The temptation for managers is to say in return, “It’s our way or the highway.”
If a person can’t adapt to culturally dominant rules in the workplace, they must change or leave. But the courts have had some things to say about unfavorable and discriminatory workplace practices. Yet the managers or the school administrators may not view their decisions or disciplinary actions as discrimination. People need to work by the same rules, in their view.
In one large Midwestern workplace, I provided training on corporate policies in the area of sexual harassment prevention. It was interesting to see the reactions among employees. Older workers took a much different view than younger workers of the need for such policies. Some workers from other ethnic groups were quite puzzled by these rules, for men and women have as little interaction as possible in the workplace. For different reasons, workers viewed the problem—and the solutions—differently.
Workplaces and schools, therefore, really struggle these days with how to find a unified approach to ethics and policies in their settings—and how to provide training and instruction in ways people understand in their context and experience.
One of the first steps a manager must take is to reflect carefully on what’s universally acceptable and unacceptable in work relationships. There are some universal ethical principles, such as respect for the dignity of others, the need for fair treatment for all, and the importance of best thinking for the advancement of the workplace. These are just a handful of statements that have universal application.
As universal principles in the workplace are defined, then training methods need to be adapted to communicate their presence in the workplace. Not only do human beings have different learning styles; cultures have different learning approaches, too. Training in ethical application has to be modified to different styles and forms of learning. Some never ask questions, even if they’re puzzled, because that’s disrespectful, while others always ask questions to compel people of authority to prove themselves.
Finally, disciplinary approaches need to be refined when ethical lapses occur. There are universally weak points where misbehavior can occur: money, sexual energy, intellectual property use, and the use of time, just to name a few. When lapses occur, managers need to be forthright and indicate the universal principles that need to be respected, as well as the policies they need to practice—and sometimes to reinforce why a problem has arisen. Diversity may be desirable, but adherence to key standards must be stressed to all persons regardless of background. IBI