Cultural diversity is an increasingly salient issue for many organizations due to greater geographic mobility among potential members (including migration) and a decrease in barriers to participation in many countries. “Cultural diversity” is defined as the presence of members with different systems of understanding based on cultural or group affiliation (Cox 1993). These systems of understanding may be based on identities of gender, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, religion, educational background, or other identity groups. Loden and Rosner (1991) divide dimensions of diversity into those that are relatively fixed as primary (e. g., age, ethnicity, gender, physical abilities, race, and sexual orientation) and those that are more mutable as secondary (e. g., educational background, geographic location, income, marital status, etc.). Although demographic differences in a group often reflect differences in experiences and patterns of behavior, it is the differences in worldview, values, and ways of understanding based on cultural differences that often prove challenging in understanding diversity in organizations. When members of a work, social, or educational organization come from different cultural backgrounds, there is both increased potential for conflict and misunderstanding and the potential for greater creativity and resources, resulting in productivity.
Cultural diversity has been framed by organizations in various ways (Cox 1993; Ely & Thomas 2001). Cultural diversity has long been seen as an issue of civil rights, social justice, and morality in some organizations, where providing access and fair treatment to people from different cultural backgrounds is the “right thing to do.” Cultural diversity, especially in the US, has also been framed as a legal issue, with a focus on avoiding charges of discrimination (e.g., lawsuits) and meeting governmental requirements (e.g., affirmative action). Many workplace organizations also frame cultural diversity as an economic issue (i.e., the “business case” for diversity), linking diverse membership to better creativity and innovation, legitimacy, the ability to attract talented new members, and, ultimately, productivity. A focus on cultural diversity may also be seen as part of the organization’s mission (particularly with educational or nonprofit organizations) or their identity. Often these diversity frames overlap, with organizations citing multiple reasons for focusing on cultural diversity issues.
Research On Cultural Diversity In Organizations
Research on cultural diversity in organizations has been approached from a variety of meta-theoretical perspectives. While much of the early research addressed cultural differences from a functional or social scientific perspective, many researchers today utilize interpretive and critical approaches to examine diversity in organizational life.
From a functional perspective, researchers (e.g., Hofstede 1991) have examined cultural-level factors that influence organizational behavior and affective outcomes (e.g., satisfaction), focusing on the influence of national culture and other easily measured dimensions (sex, ethnicity, age, etc.). The focus of these studies is predicting behavior on the basis of knowledge of cultural norms. These approaches have been criticized for oversimplifying cultural identity and minimizing the influence of multiple cultures and individual differences (Jackson et al. 2003).
From an interpretive perspective, research on cultural diversity in organizations has examined organizations via ethnographic case studies (e.g., Ely & Thomas 2001) and in-depth interviews, for example asking minorities in organizations about their experiences and perceptions of behavioral choices (e.g., Orbe 1998). These studies try to make sense of the experiences of diverse members in specific organizational contexts. While they examine members’ perceptions of life in the organization with recognition of the complexity of organizational realities, these studies rarely suggest ways to improve cultural relations beyond increasing understanding of the experience of those being studied.
A growing area of current research on diversity in organizations takes more of a critical approach, examining issues of dominant cultural power and privilege in organizations. The goal from this perspective is to critique the ways in which organizations are sites of power and control, and the roles that cultural identity and dominant group membership play in this control. This perspective is exemplified by Munshi (2005), who uses postcolonial and feminist perspectives to critique the ways in which discourse about diversity serves to control those outside of the dominant group. While critical research highlights the structural changes that are necessary for equality of members, critics note that such opportunities for radical change are rarely accessible to organizational members.
Cultural Diversity At Different Levels Of Organizational Analysis
Within the organizational context, cultural diversity can also be addressed at individual, interpersonal, group, organizational, and societal levels (Jackson et al. 2003). Both the theoretical and the applied literatures address topics at these levels, while recognizing some concerns may be present on multiple levels.
At the individual level, the focus is on the influence of cultural diversity and the diversity climate on members’ individual perceptions, attitudes, and performance. The emotional toll associated with being culturally different may be a salient issue for individuals who are not part of the dominant group (e.g., Allen 1998), as are issues of ethnocentrism and cultural sensitivity. Attitudes toward the organization and the subsequent level of involvement and identification (Cox 1993) are examined at the individual level. However, most communication scholars examine these factors in tandem with communication behaviors at the interpersonal, group, or organizational level.
At the interpersonal level, interactions between members from different cultural backgrounds are the focus. Interpersonal conflicts, often due to different expectations or cultural norms, are manifest at this level, including issues of stereotyping, prejudice, and mistreatment. Members from diverse cultural backgrounds may also experience less access to interpersonal relationships with mentors who can help them within the organization. Training is often designed to address interaction between members at an interpersonal level, rather than examining structural issues that privilege one cultural group over others (Hafen 2005).
At the group level, the interactions between members working together in a team, committee, or departmental context are central (Oetzel et al. 2001). At this level, issues of inclusion/exclusion and tokenism become salient for members who are different from the majority or dominant group. Intergroup conflict may also be an issue.
At the organizational level, the focus for cultural diversity is on the diversity climate. The diversity climate is influenced by communication at the other levels, but also includes issues of formal and informal structures, patterns of minority individual outcomes (opportunities for advancement, equity in compensation and job assignment, and fair assessment of performance), the value placed on diversity, the level of knowledge about and acceptance of cultural difference, and evaluations of institutional bias in human resource systems and other policies and procedures (Cox 1993). Both structural and informal access are important for members of nondominant groups. The level of structural integration of members from different cultural groups can be measured from their representation both at different levels of status within the organization and in specific units. Lack of opportunities for advancement to higher-level positions results in a “glass ceiling” (Morrison & Von Glinow 1990). However, the integration into informal networks, providing access to information and the ability to build relationships with others, is also vital. Voice, representation, and access to participation in organizational decision-making are often concerns for nondominant groups.
At the societal level, organizational representatives’ interactions with potential members and with others outside of the organization (e.g., clients and customers) can be influenced by cultural diversity as well. Representatives of organizations may also reflect perceptions about the cultural diversity of the organization and the diversity climate as they interact in their community. Public perceptions, which may be influenced by publicity about positive or negative events or climate evaluation, also influence the success of the organization in attracting members.
Methodological Issues And Future Research
Methodological concerns in studying cultural diversity in organizations center on the complexity of cultural identity and identity development, as well as power issues in the research process. Cultural influences are difficult to conceptualize and measure, as much of culture is based on tacit understanding that may be difficult to articulate. Different aspects of one’s identity may be salient depending on the organizational context, and personality and life experiences may influence the individual’s level of cultural self-awareness. Dominant culture members and those who are assimilated into the dominant culture may not consider culture to be very important, but those who are exploring their nondominant identity and resisting assimilation may be more cognizant of their own cultural group’s norms and expectations (Phinney 1993). Cultures are also in constant change, increasing the complexity of cultural dynamics.
Access issues can also prove challenging for researchers. Even willing and open participants’ level of candor may be influenced by the cultural background of the researchers. An interviewee may choose to share less with a dominant-culture interviewer, for example, or frame information shared in ways that create or maintain a positive (facesaving) image of the cultural group. Organizations may also choose to limit access to researchers so as to not highlight potential problems or encourage members to focus on differences related to cultural diversity.
There are a number of new and continuing directions for research on cultural diversity in organizations, including studying the resources and skills necessary for diversity “competence” at multiple organizational levels, dimensions of culture that have been overlooked or underexamined in previous studies (e.g., religion), evolving contexts (e.g., virtual groups), and organizational processes from the perspective of members of nondominant cultural groups (e.g., emotional labor, leadership, change). Much of the research on diversity in organizations has been conducted within business and educational contexts in the United States; however, with increased globalization and worldwide demographic shifts, further analysis should be conducted in different countries and contexts.
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