Diversity has become an important topic in workplaces around the world, as nations experience changes in demographics. Many countries are adjusting to increases in numbers of nontraditional workers, especially women, older persons, and people with disabilities. Meanwhile, due to global economics, industrialized areas are witnessing influxes of skilled and unskilled migrants seeking employment (Cheney & Barnett 2005). Also, multinational corporations are setting up subsidiaries in foreign locations, where local workers interact with co-workers and executives from the companies’ headquarters. Thus, people from diverse places with diverse expertise, experience, and expectations are encountering one another at work, where they confront differences in value systems, language skills, and communication styles. As organizations accommodate these workers, they also must serve diverse clientele/consumers in various cultural and geographic contexts.
When organizations first recognized that diversity mattered, they concentrated on compliance issues such as civil rights, affirmative action, and equal employment opportunity. Currently, many companies are striving to leverage cultural differences among employees because they realize that diversity can positively impact their bottom line. Known as the “business case” perspective, this approach sees diversity as a resource rather than a problem (Mor Barak 2005). This viewpoint emphasizes valuing differences, and it encourages members from different groups to contribute their cultural insights to workplace endeavors (Thomas & Ely 2001).
Workplaces that value employee diversity can gain positive outcomes, including increased creativity and learning, better decision-making, and improved performance. However, a diverse workforce also can generate conflict and tension among employees, which can lead to turnover, charges of discrimination and harassment, and backlash against attempts to integrate workplaces at all levels.
Communication plays a crucial role in developments and outcomes related to workplace diversity because differences among employees, clients, and other organizational stakeholders affect all communication processes in organizations. Therefore, communication scholarship can inform efforts to maximize benefits and minimize detriments of workplace diversity.
Defining Workplace Diversity
Diversity is an ambiguous, sometimes contested word whose meaning varies according to context (Konrad et al. 2006). In 1987, the landmark Workforce 2000 (Johnston & Packer 1987) report indicated that increasing numbers of white women and women and men of color (mainly African-Americans) were entering the United States’ workforce. Gender and race became significant as members of these groups and their advocates sought equal access and rights in the workplace, and sometimes faced conflict with members of majority groups. Recent definitions of diversity encompass population trends in the United States of an aging workforce, greater ethnic diversity, rising numbers of immigrants (especially Latino/as), and effects of globalization.
Although the United States pioneered the diversity movement, notions of diversity in the United States do not always correspond with those around the world (Mor Barak 2005). Although many nations have begun to refer to diversity as a human resource issue, their meanings vary. In Europe, “diversity” implies national cultures and languages. In the Netherlands, diversity means “ethnic difference” and “immigrant.” In Brazil, persons who appear to be “black” according to US standards may be considered “white.” These types of differences make it difficult to define diversity from a global standpoint.
Most contemporary views of diversity center on the idea that members of historically disadvantaged, nondominant groups (e.g., women and people of color) are more likely to experience discrimination than members of dominant groups (e.g., men and white people) (Konrad et al. 2006). Mor Barak (2005, 132) incorporates this stance along with the notion of variance across geographic and socio-historical contexts to define global workforce diversity as:
the division of the workforce into distinction categories that (a) have a perceived commonality within a given cultural or national context, and that (b) impact potentially harmful or beneficial employment outcomes such as job opportunities, treatment in the workplace, and promotion prospects, irrespective of job-related skills and qualifications.
This perspective aligns with emerging approaches to research on workplace diversity and communication.
Research On Workplace Diversity And Communication
Early research on workplace diversity concentrated on national cultures, based on initial conceptions of intercultural communication (which centered on national identities), and due to concerns about globalization and its potential impacts on the US economy. Projects on nationality and organizational communication often studied organizations in specific countries, or investigated communicative behaviors of members of particular cultural groups, such as decision-making in Japanese organizations and managerial communication in Chinese factories.
Many studies about workplace diversity and nationality refer to Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede’s (1984) pioneering project about international differences in employees’ workrelated values. This large-scale survey assessed value orientations of workers from over 50 countries in local subsidiaries of the multinational corporation IBM. Hofstede concluded that national culture explained differences in employees’ work-related values and attitudes toward expected, acceptable behaviors in the workplace. For instance, he found relationships between participants’ nationality and their tendency to be loyal to their ingroups versus feeling responsible primarily for their own personal needs. Hofstede used this finding to label countries and their citizens as either collectivist or individualist. This distinction is the most widely studied and cited dimension of Hofstede’s model (Triandis 2004).
Studies that employ Hofstede’s framework tend to focus on culture and cultural differences by emphasizing communication between individuals. Although these projects offer insight, they usually do not consider organizational issues that can affect interaction, such as formal and informal policies, practices, and norms. Also, they rarely delve into power dynamics inherent in all organizations, and especially significant in diverse workplaces. Furthermore, these endeavors are apt to apply an assimiliationist model which assumes that all employees will want to adopt the cultural values of organizations in which they work. Finally, they neglect to consider macro-level issues, such as social, cultural, economic, and historical factors that can affect communication processes, especially in newer contexts like multinational corporations (Tanaka 2006).
These criticisms offer useful direction for research based on the global definition of workforce diversity. Related to this, critics also have called for more studies about experiences of nondominant groups (Oetzel et al. 2001). Some scholars promote theoretical frameworks that seem especially suitable for learning about nondominant groups, and for studying power relations. These include critical approaches, which delve into power dynamics that pervade all interactions, but are especially likely when members of diverse groups interact. A related theoretical perspective is co-cultural theory, which describes how nondominant members of dominant organizations strategically use communication to negotiate power relations (Orbe 1998). For example, they may employ various forms of assimilation, accommodation, or separation.
Some scholars recommend using qualitative methods such as in-depth interviewing, observation, and narrative analysis because they are more likely than quantitative methods to provide insight into experiences of nondominant group members. Some authors recommend matching researchers and participants according to cultural background to facilitate research interactions (Orbe 1998). They also advocate investigating intersections of identities, such as gender, race, and class, rather than focusing only on one (Allen 2004).
While scholars offer numerous ideas for studying workplace diversity, they also acknowledge potential obstacles. For example, organizations may not allow researchers to study diversity because they fear repercussions from investigating such a potentially controversial topic. Even when researchers gain access to companies, potential participants may be reticent to talk about diversity issues, or they may not be truthful. Due to concerns about social desirability, participants may say what they think researchers want to hear. Also, members of dominant groups may be concerned about being perceived as prejudiced, and members of nondominant groups may fear that researchers will judge them as hypersensitive (Allen 2004). In addition, language and communication style differences can impede effective communication between researchers and participants.
Despite these challenges, a slowly growing body of research employs many of the approaches that critics of previous scholarship have endorsed. Among these projects, gender is arguably the most widely studied topic. This type of research adheres to the ideas that consequences of diversity can vary according to membership in dominant and nondominant groups, and that power matters.
A team of researchers conducted case studies of three professional services firms to identify conditions under which cultural diversity enhanced or deterred workgroup productivity (Thomas & Ely 2001). Data collection teams consisted of members of various cultural groups, most of whom were matched with interviewees according to sex and race. Among three perspectives on diversity that emerged, the most effective was the integrationand-learning perspective, which advocates soliciting and using cultural insights and experiences of group members as valuable resources for accomplishing group tasks.
Another study applied qualitative methods to study power dynamics related to employee mistreatment in a culturally diverse workplace (Meares et al. 2004). A team of researchers employed muted group theory, which attends to ways that members of groups in society feel empowered or not to voice their experiences or worldviews. Based on narrative analysis of interview transcripts, the researchers concluded that intersecting identities (race, gender, and organizational role) made a difference in narratives about mistreatment: voices of people with more access to power (i.e., European-American male scientists) were less likely to be muted than those with less access to power (women, persons of color, and employees other than scientists).
As a final example, Tanaka (2006) conducted a longitudinal, ethnographic study of a Japan-based subsidiary of an American chemical plant to explore effects of identity, language, and behavior on intercultural business communication. The researcher interviewed participants in their native language of Japanese or English in order to acquire accurate information and to capture nuances. Analyses indicated that the use of English empowered native speakers, who had to negotiate different discourse systems as they interacted with American bosses and Japanese co-workers and clientele. The researcher shared insights with the company to help them develop strategies for dealing with linguistic and cultural challenges.
The need persists for studies about communication and diversity that delve into complexities of cultural differences and power dynamics in various workplace contexts. Several scholars have provided blueprints, and some have begun to conduct work which incorporates their ideas. If more communication scholars heed their advice and follow their lead, the discipline can provide invaluable insight and information to help organizations worldwide to address the enduring, important issue of diversity in the workplace.
- Allen, B. J. (2004). Difference matters: Communicating social identity. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
- Cheney, G., & Barnett, G. (eds.) (2005). International and multicultural organizational communication. Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Hofstede, G. (1984). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Johnston, W. B., & Packer, A. H. (1987). Workforce 2000: Work and workers for the 21st century. Indianapolis, IN: Hudson Institute.
- Konrad, A., Prasad, P., & Pringle, J. (eds.) (2006). The handbook of workplace diversity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Meares, M. M., Oetzel, J. G., Torres, A. B., Ginossar, T., & Derkacs, D. (2004). Employee mistreatment and muted voices in the culturally diverse workplace. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 32, 4 –27.
- Mor Barak, M. (2005). Managing diversity: Toward a globally inclusive workplace. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Oetzel, J. G., Burtis, T. E., Chew Sanchez, M. I., & Perez, F. G. (2001). Investigating the role of communication in culturally diverse work groups: A review and synthesis. In W. B. Gudykunst (ed.), Communication yearbook 25. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 237–269.
- Orbe, M. P. (1998). Constructing co-cultural theory: An explication of culture, power, and communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Tanaka, H. (2006). Emerging English-speaking business discourses in Japan. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication, 16, 25 –50.
- Thomas, D., & Ely, R. (2001). Cultural diversity at work: The effects of diversity perspectives on work group processes and outcomes. Administrative Science Quarterly, 46, 229 –273.
- Triandis, H. C. (2004). The many dimensions of culture. Academy of Management Executive, 18, 88– 93.