Valuing Diversity

Sandra A. McGruder

(This article was prepared especially for AU-24, Concepts for Air Force Leadership.)

A major concern of the Air Force as well as of corporate America is how to deal with the changing demographics of the American workforce. Based on the Hudson Institute's landmark publication, Workforce 2000: Work and Workers for the 21st Century, it is now commonly accepted that the workforce for the future will be different from that of the present and the one known in the past. The publication clearly documents the changes we can expect and the implications for the economy and for business. How will we manage a workforce composed of additional minorities, women, immigrants, older people, and people with disabilities?

One Air Force solution to the shifting patterns and potential problems caused by changing demographics in the American workforce is for the total force to receive instruction so that it can understand diversity. In the video entitled "Strength through Diversity," Sheila E. Widnall, secretary of the Air Force, relates what diversity means to the Air Force or to any organization that hopes to play a vital role in our society.

Diversity results in a wider range of views and experiences; without these an organization can become isolated. By offering a face that looks like America, diversity helps retain the trust of the American public. In bringing together individuals with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and opinions, organizations will see more ideas and alternatives, ultimately resulting in better solutions. In that sense, diversity fuels the vitality of the organization by offering challenging opportunities to individuals from every segment of society. The Air Force gains access to a much larger and more talented workforce. We need to make full use of all the nation's human resources as we tackle the tough challenges ahead.

The rapidly changing global environment in which we live and work and the challenge brought about by the realities of the future workforce are important issues for profit and nonprofit entities alike. For if America is to remain competitive in the future, it is critical that we understand how to manage a diverse workforce to assist us in meeting the challenges of accelerating change and exploding technological advances. Our very survival may very well depend on how well we manage diversity and make effective use of all human resources. The overall impact of changing workforce demographics is that each organization, if it is to prosper, must be prepared to deal with diverse cultural values brought to the workplace. With this in mind, the following four tools are presented for managing diversity.

The first tool essential to managing diversity is to form a common ground or shared set of assumptions within which to communicate. In most work situations you will have people of different ages, race, sex, religions, personalities, and so on; however, the organization normally has a vision, goals, rules, and regulations that govern what it does based on its mission. When we don't establish a common ground on which to communicate, we have mass confusion with everyone going in different directions.

After forming a common ground on which to communicate, we must expel stereotypes. "Younger employees are wet behind the ears, know nothing, have no respect, lack experience, therefore have no credibility, are not loyal, and can't be trusted with much responsibility. Older employees are less motivated to work hard, they are nothing but deadwood, resist change, can't learn new methods, reach a plateau after 40, buried after 50, and are 'fire proof... These are examples of age stereotypes from Workforce America! Managing Employee Diversity as a Vital Resource by Marilyn Loden and Judy B. Rosener. In order to manage diversity, we must increase awareness and expel stereotypes. There is no room in the workplace for stereotypes because stereotypes ignore differences among the individuals in a group.

Next we must acknowledge differences. People are different and there is no way to make them fit into a single mold; nor is there any reason to. In order to effectively manage a diverse workforce, we must acknowledge differences and agree to respect or at least accept those differences. (We may have differences of opinion about individuals such as Rush Limbaugh and Louis Farrakhan, but we should accept the fact that we share different views and respect our rights to have them.)

Finally, we should use everyone's experience and background as a resource. Diversity of experience and background means diverse ways of looking at issues and problems. Effective managing of all human resources can result in higher productivity, survival in a world of competition, improved performance, more creativity, more innovations, and reduced turnover and absenteeism. Giving emphasis to diversity without threatening our unity is the proper way we can in fact strengthen the ties that bind us together. Communication, sensitivity, mutual respect, and common trust are, in short, the primary ingredients of social cohesiveness in a democratic society.

Diversity should not be used interchangeably or synonymously with equal employment opportunity (EEO) or affirmative action (AA). EEO/AA is the law based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII. This body of law provides a clear-cut set of guidelines with which all organizations and employers must comply regarding objective hiring, promotion, and treatment practices. The goal of diversity is to create a workplace where workers -- regardless of their diverse backgrounds, age, race, sex, religion, or disability -- feel appreciated and get along with each other. Managing diversity is good management practice and is essential for the growth of an organization.

In summary, managing a changing mosaic workforce requires more flexibility and more understanding than does managing a more homogeneous workforce. We have to learn the Deming quality principles and how to empower our employees. We have to encourage their ideas and suggestions. We must reward outstanding performance and support the professional and personal needs of others. We are faced with a variety of management challenges based on the life experiences and socioeconomic factors of workforce members. We can be a more effective Air Force if we keep these differences in mind when we develop both short-term and long-range strategic plans. We must be cognizant that what works to motivate or reward employees of one group doesn't necessarily work for other groups. Organizations that understand these flexibilities and design programs to meet the needs of all their workers, as well as those of potential employees, will have a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining the highest quality workers. We want to make the Air Force an organization where the best qualified want to work. As Secretary Widnall stated, "Each of has a responsibility to create at every level within the Air Force an environment that supports our commitment to diversity; an environment in which each individual can thrive and excel."

On balance, diversity is designed to help managers take the necessary action to ensure a more effective workforce. Including men and women of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds is absolutely critical to the success of the Air Force. The future will bring only more diversity and with it will come the additional need to build an Air Force culture of sustained mutual respect and understanding.

Sandra McGruder currently serves as a faculty member at the Civilian Personnel Management Division, Air Force Human Resource Management School at Maxwell AFB, Gunter Annex, Alabama, and as a course director for the Chief EEO Counselors Course and Employment Development Managers Course (Fundamental and Advanced). Ms McGruder is a graduate of Tennessee State University.