Common Ground for Differences


Before Vivek Wadhwa intervened, culture clashes rocked Relativity Technologies.

American employees at the Cary, N.C., firm insulted newly immigrated Russian co-workers by talking down to them, said Wadhwa, the company's co-founder and chief executive.

Russian employees marched stonily down the hallways, suspicious of passersby who waved and smiled. Indian employees stoically tolerated verbal abuse from an American manager.

"Oh, we had such blowups," Wadhwa said.

Immediate action was required: His Russian workers were threatening to walk off the job. His Indian workers were stressed and upset.

Wadhwa realized that Relativity's conflicts occurred because of serious cross-cultural misunderstandings. Each faction had made erroneous assumptions about the others, then behaved in ways that caused offense.

The American employees believed that, because the Russians spoke limited English, they were not highly skilled, Wadhwa said. But, the Russian programmers had more technical knowledge than the Americans; some had even been employed by the KGB.

The Russian employees had been taught to be serious on the job. They thought their American co-workers, who smiled and waved at them in the hallway, were demonstrating unprofessional, mocking conduct.

Relativity's newly arrived Indian workers assumed they had no right to protest their ill-treatment by the American manager. Their lack of response seemed to provoke him further. Wadhwa, who also is Indian, encouraged them to report future breaches of conduct, then chastised the offending manager.

In the 1990s, American businesses turned to diversity training to educate employees about racial and ethnic issues and prevent such disputes.

But some workplace experts say the programs haven't lived up to expectations.

A study by the Center for the New American Workplace concluded that diversity training (which, in some cases, consists only of a brief lecture or seminar) hasn't translated into improvements in employees' work lives or relationships.

Some companies offer the programs as symbolic gestures; others do so without senior management's support, according to the Academy of Management Executive, a trade journal.

Although more than 52% of American companies utilize diversity training programs, racial and ethnic harassment in the workplace remains a serious problem.

But forward-thinking companies are taking innovative steps to ensure that cultural and ethnic differences are respected and valued in their workplaces.

IBM, Xerox and DuPont sponsor ethnic caucuses for their African American, Latino and Asian employees, in which workers discuss concerns and explore ways to improve their job experiences. Federal Express offers minority mentoring programs.

UPS sends its managers into communities markedly different from their own to educate them about diversity issues.

Multinationals such as Colgate-Palmolive, which sells products in 215 countries, are building work forces reflective of the global communities they serve.

This will become increasingly important in the future, said Larry Norton, managing director of PeopleSolutions in Houston.

Of the 1,000 largest U.S. industrial firms, 700 expect their overseas growth to exceed their domestic growth over the next four years, according to the trade journal Social Work.

"If you're in an international organization, I think you're a fool not to have that type of representation," Norton said. "I've seen organizations fail because they didn't think through how to launch a product in a foreign company."

Numerous challenges remain, even for the best-intentioned firms.

Some must operate in countries that condone discriminatory practices.

Colgate-Palmolive approaches this problem by demonstrating respect for its host countries, encouraging collaborative efforts, but not permitting discrimination in its ranks.

Other companies have valued clients who express prejudices that threaten to damage them legally or financially.

Such was the dilemma of a large U.S. bank, when a major investor refused to permit a female Chinese financial advisor to handle his account, said David Tulin, president of Tulin DiversiTeam in Philadelphia, who was called in by the bank to help resolve the problem.

With Tulin's aid, the bank avoided a crisis. The client's former financial advisor, a white male about to retire, proposed a solution to the client.

"We actually wrote a script," Tulin said.

"He told the client, 'I will give you the best person for your portfolio--not necessarily the person you're most comfortable with at first--but I'll stay on to help smooth the transition.' "

Occasionally, top-level executives remain unaware of cultural and ethnic conflicts.

Diversity experts such as Phyllis Haynes, partner at North Bergen, N.J.-based Inter-Change Consultants, recommend that firms periodically conduct audits of their workplace practices.

A thorough audit will evaluate a company's hiring and promotion practices, senior management ethnic/racial makeup, compensation, succession plans and commendation awards to determine whether discrimination exists.

It also can include conferences with employees about their workplace experiences. Confidential interviews may reveal that minority employees have concerns that haven't been addressed: They may feel they've been excluded from decision-making networks, denied promotional opportunities or have been segregated by job classification.

Vanessa Weaver, chief executive of Alignment Strategies in Washington, encountered such a situation when she was called into a firm whose African American female employees had a very high absentee rate.

Many of them suffered from stress-related illnesses. Weaver interviewed the women.

"They were feeling stressed because they couldn't resolve their work issues, didn't have upper management's support, and felt they didn't have the same opportunities as other employees," Weaver said. "But they suffered in silence, because they believed they had no other option."

After learning of the problems, the firm's management held open meetings about the women's concerns, retrained its supervisors and began offering stress management programs, Weaver said.

Companies that cultivate work environments in which employees respect and encourage one another's differences may see bottom-line gains for their efforts, such as increased productivity and lower turnover, Weaver said.

Some social scientists refer to this heightened cultural sensitivity as "the platinum rule": treating others as they wish to be treated.

When two U.S. hotel chains encountered similar culture clashes within their ranks, only one followed this directive, said Gary Weaver, professor of international communication at American University.

Both hotel chains employed Ethiopian and African American men to park guests' cars. The Ethiopian workers occasionally greeted acquaintances by kissing them on the cheeks.

Some of their African American co-workers found this custom odd, and began ridiculing them, Gary Weaver said. In one case, a heated exchange erupted into a fight.

One hotel chain's management called a meeting of its Ethiopian and African American valets to allow the men to discuss their differences, voice their concerns about working together and learn more about each other's cultures.

"But the other chain concluded that the kissing was sexual harassment, and forbid anyone to kiss in the workplace," Gary Weaver said. "What they were saying, though, was that you can't be Ethiopian in the workplace."

By 2010, women and people of color will comprise about 70% of new entrants into the American labor force.

Los Angeles, by that time, is projected to have a population that will be 27% white, 51% Latino, 14% Asian and 8% African American, according to the Los Angeles Almanac.

In other words, workplace diversity management is becoming a necessary skill.

"There's an assumption at some companies that everybody has to be the same, that you have to leave your differences on the sidewalk," Vanessa Weaver said. "This can affect morale and productivity.

"I don't care how many people we put in the pot, we can't melt out our differences," she continued.

"But I see these differences as good. I see them as a competitive edge for American businesses."


Different Strokes

For Employees:

* Describe the behavior that you're concerned about, but don't make judgments about it, or try to interpret motivations.

* Discuss the commonalities you two share. Don't dwell on the differences.

* Be sensitive when discussing another culture's customs and beliefs. Don't make humorous comments, because they may be misinterpreted.

* Understand that cultural conflicts usually can't be resolved quickly. Be patient.


For Managers:

* Establish a clear antidiscrimination, anti-harassment policy. Mention it in your mission statement.

* List examples of prohibited behaviors. Cite disciplinary measures that will be taken, should employees carry them out.

* Hold orientation and education meetings to explain your company's diversity policy.

* Encourage employees to report potentially discriminatory behavior.

* Form diversity committees.

* Create opportunities for cross- cultural socializing.

* Set up an anonymous suggestion box, so employees can offer ways to improve workplace relations.

* Reward supervisors who are diversity-minded in their management practices.

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