Diversity Culture 192
Photo by: Yuri Arcurs

The term "diversity" refers to the way in which people differ from one another. Since such differences affect the way people interact in the workplace, diversity management is a factor for most organizations. In Cultural Diversity in Organizations, Taylor Cox Jr. explained that "cultural diversity means the representation, in one social system, of people with distinctly different group affiliations of cultural significance." Differing group affiliations that are likely to affect the workforce generally involve cultural or identity groups based on ethnicity, national origin, race, and religion.

Sensitivity to cross-cultural issues in values and communication styles is, however, only a beginning. As R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. indicated in Beyond Race and Gender, it is still necessary in the workplace to go beyond simple recognition of cultural diversity to active diversity management. Thomas indicated that, "Managing diversity is a comprehensive managerial process for developing an environment that works for all employees." Diversity management is an inclusive process since all employees belong to a culture, including those from the organization's traditionally dominant cultural group. Thomas indicated that diversity management must not be viewed as "an us/them kind of problem to be solved but as a resource to be managed."

In The American Mosaic, Anthony Carnevale and Susan Carol Stone emphasized that valuing diversity involves "recognizing that other people's standards and values are as valid as one's own." They went on elsewhere to note that for most organizations, valuing and managing diversity requires nothing less than cultural transformation. This is a prodigious task, for it requires people—especially those of the dominant culture—to let go of their assumptions about the universal rightness of their own values and customary ways of doing things and to become receptive to other cultures.

In this regard, cultural diversity in the workplace mirrors many of the same issues at play in the realm of international business. In international business interactions, people who have learned differing conceptions of normative behavior are forced to suspend judgment of one another. Cultural norms shift relative to language, technological expectations, social organization, face-saving, authority conception, nonverbal behavior, and the perception of time.

While these areas of cultural difference are foreign in one's own culture, they remain normal within the confines of one's foreign counterpart. Thus, speaking Portuguese is culturally unusual or different in the United States but culturally expected in Brazil—and vice versa. The use of Portuguese or English in a U.S.-Brazilian joint venture , however, carries no normative expectation. While speaking Portuguese in the United States might be seen as undesirable or even wrong, international business effectiveness demands the suspension of such judgments. No culture is inherently "natural" or "normal." As a result, what is right in one culture is not necessarily right or wrong, only different.

By contrast, in an entirely domestic setting, the dominant culture has traditionally passed judgment as to right and wrong regarding cultural differences. The norms of the dominant culture take on the aura of right; behavior differing from such norms, accordingly, take on the aura of wrong.

Difficulty in accepting the judgments of the dominant culture in a society, however, is becoming more and more prevalent. In part, this results from the greater awareness of foreign cultures in an increasingly integrated world economy. Yet the matter is more complex than this. In many countries such as the United States, the demographic changes in the workforce have reduced the size and influence of the historically dominant culture significantly. Large and important minority cultures live and work side by side with the historically dominant culture. It is no longer fully possible to speak of most countries in terms of a single culture. As James Clifford observed in The Predicament of Culture, it has become "increasingly hard to conceive of human diversity as inscribed in bounded independent cultures."

In other words, one can speak of a Brazilian or a U.S. culture—but to which of the many subcultural groups in those countries does one refer? It is difficult to indicate, in short, what constitutes a national cultural norm. Cultural diversity deals with how to manage those varying cultural norms within a single nation.

Cultural diversity as an issue in the workplace may deal with any differences among people who work together. A broad definition of diversity can have a positive or negative effect on how an organization approaches the issue.

Underscoring the inclusive nature of the term (all people, by definition, belong to some group) allows the organization to include people in ways that best refer to their needs. Diversity can refer to job-related functions. In a hospital, for instance, the presence of physicians, registered nurses, and hospital administrators may present diversity issues. Diversity can indicate differences in thought processing or personality. For example, the different outcomes of employees on psychological indicators (such as Myer-Briggs test scores) can be useful in establishing management teams. Diversity can also refer to historical groupings; these might include political party or work committees peculiar to the organization. For example, a bipartisan committee of council members would represent a specialized form of diversity on a city government task force.

On the negative side, as a term, "diversity" is often the subject of debate. The term may be imbued with political meaning. Not all people in organizations value diversity. As a rule, people are most comfortable with those like themselves and emphasizing diversity may undermine that comfort level. Diversity tends to breed new approaches to old practices and long-standing problems. Individuals in organizations may find such change troubling. Moreover, individuals with strong prejudices against certain groups may find rapidly changing demographics in the workforce threatening either because they find change itself disquieting or because they hold a position they feel they might not be able to maintain if groups historically excluded from their workplace were allowed to compete in an unhindered way for their positions.


Cultural diversity as used here does not include diversity based on noncultural identity groups. While, arguably, sexual orientation or differences in ability (such a case is often made for the deaf community, for example) may act as a cultural difference, they are not traditionally viewed as a culture per se and so exceed the scope of this discussion. Similarly, the marked increase in the number of women in the workforce mirrors the large-scale increase in those of minority or immigrant backgrounds. Women, however, are not a cultural group but rather represent one-half of every culture. While women may be treated differently from men in every culture, the way they are treated differently varies from culture to culture and so gender differences remain a subset of cultural diversity. Any comprehensive discussion of diversity in the U.S. workforce, however, should include reference to those with different physical abilities and to women.


The United States has always been an immigrant culture. Aside from Native Americans, the entire population has immigrant origins. The traditional view toward immigrants was that they would wish to assimilate to the dominant Anglo-Saxon population of the nation's earliest colonial settlers. The assimilation process, according to the traditional view, however, was never expected to be total. Each group would add a distinguishing contribution to the overall national culture so that in time the myriad immigrant groups would alter the cultural norms of the rest of the nation in subtle ways. This philosophy was called the "American melting pot."

The difficulty with this notion was that the melting pot demanded assimilation of most major cultural factors. For example, individuals employing a language other than English, or those having markedly different conceptions of kinship ties, for example—faced significant pressure to conform to the dominant Anglo-Saxon norm. Thus, use of a non-English language in the workplace or favorable attitudes toward nepotism were actively discouraged. Such practices that differed from the dominant majority culture, in the melting pot philosophy, were viewed not as merely different but as innately wrong.

Additionally, certain groups were deemed—by the dominant culture—as unable to assimilate. Some of these groups were considered "unassimilable" because of marked behavioral differences. For example, Jewish people, as a cultural group and a religious group, differed from the dominant norm. Other groups were considered to be relatively unassimilable simply due to physical appearance. Asian Americans and African Americans, for example, were frequently judged by physical appearance alone, even when their behavior was a mirror image of the dominant culture.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s had a direct effect on the assimilationist norm of the melting pot. It changed the view of the United States as a single culture welcoming those different from the dominant norm if they would only drop their ethnic or cultural distinctiveness. The double standard as applied to certain groups of Americans came under scrutiny; the belief in integration into a dominant norm was questioned.

Assuredly, such reexamination took place within the dominant native-born, white, non-Hispanic community. Still the most significant impact of the civil rights movement was that immigrants and distinctive native-born minority groups began, as Stephen Steinberg has argued, "to affirm their right to a separate identity within the framework of a pluralist nation."

The reexamination of the desirability of the domination of the workforce by a culturally monolithic norm led to laws that placed a requirement on business to provide the chance for culturally diverse groups to enter the workplace. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, made it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, or religion. Equal opportunity for employment, in turn, allowed for the entry into the American workforce of increasing numbers of individuals from cultural groups historically discriminated against. This, in turn, led groups that had attempted to assimilate to question their decision to subsume their own cultural values to the dominant norm. Thus, even within the historically favored white community, ethnic groups began to see benefits in returning to—or at least not hiding—their own cultural differences.


Demographic shifts based on population changes and immigration have led to the reassessment of native-born, non-Hispanic whites. This group no longer represents the dominant cultural norm whom all other groups are expected to mimic in attempts to assimilate. Increasingly, one can no longer accurately talk about some variety of mainstream American culture. The normative Anglo-Saxon culture that had been held forth as "the" American culture until the mid-1960s is now viewed as just one more group (albeit a still powerful and influential one) in a culturally diverse society. The United States can no longer be viewed as a single culture but rather of many cultures joined by a common set of laws. In so diverse a society, the workplace itself may serve to be a unifying element, since those working at the same organization will have their work together as a point in common.

Even if an organization were to resist the demographic pressures of change, it would be unlikely to succeed. If an organization were, for example, to limit itself to the hiring of nonimmigrant white males with no strong ethnic ties—the norm for the 1950s—the number of people available to fill the requisite positions would be too small. Only 15 percent of the incoming labor force can be described as white male. This figure itself includes ethnically distinct groups such as Jewish, Italian, and other Americans with strong ethnic identities. To ensure hiring the best person for the job, so small a base would be impractical on a large scale.

On the other hand, the organization that attempts to sensitize itself to the cross-cultural issues of a diverse workforce will likely benefit. Such an organization will have increased opportunity to identify and attract the best employees from culturally different groups. Additionally, the organization that remains cross-culturally sensitive to the needs of a diverse workforce is likely to reduce absenteeism and employee turnover based on cross-cultural conflict. Absenteeism declines in an organization that is responsive to the needs of its employees. In today's diverse workforce, responsiveness to employee needs will rest on understanding the cultural issues that affect people's beliefs as well as their work performance.

Perhaps the most promising benefit of cultural diversity in the U.S. workplace is the opportunity it provides for cross-cultural synergy. Synergy—the result of a combination in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—has long been a side-benefit to global business involving multiple cultures. The same is likely to hold true with regard to domestic cultural diversity. Different cultural values and worldviews, by their nature, provide for nontraditional solutions to long-standing problems.

The culturally heterogeneous workforce has an obvious advantage in cross-cultural marketing and management. On the domestic level, changing demographic patterns allow for new areas of segmented ethnic marketing. This, in turn, represents new domestic markets for goods or services in mature markets that have little room for expansion in their traditional market share. Most ethnically identifiable markets, in addition, currently show potential for growth.

Finally, cross-cultural sensitivity associated with managing cultural diversity in the domestic workplace provides an advantage that is valuable in competing in foreign markets. Domestic cross-cultural sensitivity increases the likelihood that U.S. companies will have an edge on cross-cultural issues abroad, areas in which competitors from more homogeneous nations would be well versed only after having entered the foreign market in question.


Diversity is also a factor in international business. While many managers may recognize and value the diversity in their own domestic work environment, these same managers tend to overlook the diversity within the nations abroad in which they conduct business. Thus, many American managers who would never say that all Americans are alike with no cultural differences present will assume nonetheless that, for example, all Britons or all Thais are culturally alike. Of course, Britain and Thailand have considerable cultural heterogeneity as well.

Britain, for example has substantial groups of citizens whose heritage stems from its former colonies in Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa. Moreover, the United Kingdom itself is the combination of four separate countries each with their own cultural group: the English, the Welsh, the Scots, and the Irish. Even these groups subdivide, so that the Scots divide into Lowland and Highland cultures, which in turn continue to subdivide into smaller groups, and so forth.

Additionally, managers working abroad may unthinkingly apply their own national views toward diversity to the diversity in the nation to which they have traveled. For example, many U.S. managers have a tendency to view diversity management as an issue of numbers in which the percentages of a given population is mirrored in the percentage of employees within the place of employment. This works well in the United States where lawsuits have in some cases defined issues of discrimination in terms of the "disparate impact" of discriminatory policies on a company's overall employment numbers by ethnic group or race. Additionally, the racial and ethnic groups of the United States, while somewhat regional in distribution, are not particularly bound to one specific part of the country over another. Finally, the relatively high mobility of workers in the United States make it a reasonable assumption to hire employees from elsewhere in the country and expect them to move to the place of employment.

By contrast, many countries are divided into ethnic or cultural groups that have strong regional attachments. Belgium, for instance, officially has delineated which portions of the nation are French, Flemish, German, or bilingual (the latter limited to Brussels). While it is not unreasonable to think that Flemish Belgians might work in a French-speaking area or vice versa, the attachment to region and the likelihood of such movement is considerably less likely than might be expected in the United States. To achieve a workforce that is fully balanced between the French and Flemish communities in Belgium, then, a company might be expected to open facilities in each cultural region of the country.

Even in countries with ethnic groups whose culture is not strongly tied to particular regions of the nation, the national approach toward valuing the nation's diversity may differ substantially from that of the visiting manager's home country. Thus, in the United States, diversity is encouraged through equal employment opportunity laws, but not through officially mandated quotas or hiring requirements by race or ethnic group. By contrast, Malaysia does insist on hiring requirements by ethnic group in many situations. While the system may not be agreeable to visiting American managers in Malaysia, the Malaysian system seems to have worked fairly well for Malaysia's Malay, Tamil, and Chinese communities. Indeed, one may argue that the interethnic peace that lasted throughout the Malaysian economic crises at the close of the 1990s may have directly derived from such laws. This is no small matter in a nation that on many occasions had scapegoated its Chinese community during periods of economic upheaval.

Finally, workplace diversity must reflect the actual presence of heterogeneity in a culture. Japan, for example, is 98.5 percent Japanese in ethnic background. This necessarily affects Japanese attitudes toward diversity or even the ability of the Japanese to see diversity as an important issue in other countries. By contrast, in Canada, no single ethnic or cultural group comprises a majority of the population. In Canada, as a result, it becomes difficult to think in terms of a dominant traditional culture for the nation as a whole, and the importance of diversity in business settings becomes readily apparent.

Thus, in an international perspective, managers must assess diversity differently depending on which nation or nations in which they find themselves. To do otherwise would be to impose their own cultural values toward diversity on other societies. This, in turn, has within it the same roots of cross-cultural intolerance that domestic diversity appreciation policies attempt to eliminate. Thus, for example, applying an American view of diversity management on one's subsidiary operations in Malaysia, Canada, Belgium, or Japan is not substantially different from imposing one's values on other cultural groups in a domestic U.S. business setting.

[ David A. Victor ]


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