Competitiveness will hinge in part on closing cultural gaps in the workplace


March 11, 1991|By Michael Enright | Michael Enright,Special to The Sun

The executive officers at a large, Southern research and development firm were distraught.

They had received word from top managers that a number of highly touted Asian-American scientists simply weren't matching the company's expectations. Monthly status reports declared these well-educated workers to be "non-aggressive" and "secretive" about their work.

But at the same time, the company's human resources director reported that the Asian-American scientists were upset about their lack of advancement within the company. They complained that no one was taking their ideas seriously.

After consultants conducted interviews with both sides, company officials discovered that neither side was completely wrong. An ethnic and cultural chasm had split the scientists and managers into two opposing camps.

The managers had labeled the scientists "non-aggressive" but that wasn't the issue at all, recalls R. Roosevelt Thomas, who was consulted on this case. Indeed, it was completely out of character for many of the scientists, as Asian-Americans, to jump into the fray during creative brainstorming sessions.

In their culture, a great deal of emphasis is placed on "keeping your cards close to your vest" and taking ideas back to the drawing board for testing and retesting,says Dr. Thomas, president of the American Institute for Managing Diversity, a non-profit research center associated with Morehouse College in Atlanta. Only when these Asian-American scientists were sure an idea would work, he adds, did they approach their managers with suggestions.

With the globalization of the U.S. economy, and the influx of foreign-born workers, such cultural issues are becoming crucial to U.S. competitiveness, work force experts say.

"Business has to learn to relax the assimilation assumption," Dr. Thomas says. "That's not to say that the melting pot theory is wrong -- but we have to decide towhat degree will we require melting and on what particular issues."

Business leaders must realize that variety in employees' backgrounds can be a good thing, adds Curtis Plott, executive vice president of the American Society for Training and Development. "We need to utilize differences instead of trying to assimilate workers into a mold where they don't fit."

Problems like those experienced by the Asian-American scientists are no longer uncommon in the United States, where less than half the U.S. work force now consists of white, native-born males.

About 82 percent of the people entering the work force are either women, minorities or immigrants, according to figures from the American Society for Training and Development.

And the percentages will only increase in the coming decades. By the year 2000, minorities will make up one out of every four employees in the United States, and that percentage will be even higher in large urban centers like Baltimore, according to federal government estimates.

Many businesses will pay a price for waiting to deal with the issue of ethnic and cultural diversity in the work force, labor experts predict.

Such companies may have trouble finding workers or keeping them, industry experts say. Productivity may suffer because workers are griping about management or fighting among themselves. Divisions among workers also may hurt the free flow of ideas within the company.

Executives who foresee the need for changes in management style must also realize that creating a model program is not a simple task.

Work force consultants say larger companies are fooling themselves if they believe they can accomplish such a goal in less than five years; many suggest that a 10- to 20-year plan is more realistic.

McCormick and Company Inc., the Hunt Valley spice and specialty food manufacturer, has started a diversity management program that might take five years to institute.

"Although it was an option, we decided we didn't want a quick training program," says Laura Paschall, McCormick's manager of corporate training and human relations services. "You're talking about changing the overall culture of an organization. That is going to take time."

Small to midsized companies may not have the time or resources to initiate a diversity management policy like their larger corporate brothers. But there's no reason they can't adopt an informal policy or seek sensitivity training for top managers.

"In many cases, diversity management techniques can work better in smaller companies because it doesn't take as long to set a new tone for the company in dealing with minorities or women," saysDr. Judy Olian, an assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland business school.

Even though smaller companies may not have the resources to institute a full-fledged diversity management program, there are some basic tips in creating an informal policy or changing current thinking, experts in the area of cultural diversity say:

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