United Colours of Benetton – Every colour under the sun! Internationalism and therefore ethnic diversity now feature highly in the advertising campaigns of fashion houses, student organisations and big businesses alike. Proudly they depict people of different skin colours and boast of cross-border mobility programmes, company structures and alliances.
Just how far inter-cultural understanding goes in reality, no-one knows since, regardless of all the trumpeting about multiculturalism, no-one can actually say whether kosher food is served in the canteen, whether prayer rooms are available for Moslems and when or who is celebrating New Year at the moment. Furthermore, while diversity is viewed as a great new opportunity, the actual appreciation, promotion and exploitation of various differences imply a whole range of challenges which the Germans, with their rather mundane approach to management, are all too prone to overlook or dismiss.
An interdepartmental meeting: the assembled company are (of course) all male, over forty and dressed in dark-blue suits. Before getting to grips with the business at hand, they inquire about the health of their respective wives and children. Once this ritual is over, the subsequent process of co-operation moves along splendidly. Admittedly, the group does discuss various matters but always mindful of a shared goal: the collective beer after work with football on the box and tales of women, preferably in graphic detail. Science even has a name for this chummy phenomenon: “male bonding”. “Outsiders” in the shape of women, gays, the handicapped, foreigners, but also the very young, the very old, the very new and people from other sectors of the firm or other locations are always in an uncomfortable position, are excluded from informal networks or voluntarily exclude themselves.
Anyone with any common sense will wonder how creativity is supposed to come about here because our intuitive response is to first let interaction do its work in the belief that different backgrounds produce different ways of perceiving, thinking and working, all of which will combine to yield an interesting result. It has been proved moreover that heterogeneous teams really are more creative, more innovative and more successful than homogeneous teams – they just need a little more time.
It might be argued that Germany is better known for successful high-tech research and development than for trailblazing innovation in management or revolutionary plans for relations between employees or with customers. Admittedly, the socio-political and cultural circumstances have always been somewhat “special” here. The USA by contrast experienced much bloodshed as a result of its social diversity when African Americans would no longer tolerate being treated as second-class citizens. In turn, the women’s movement challenged the established order, and finally gays and lesbians also began to fight for their integration. These were the birth pangs of policies aimed at equal rights and equal opportunities for specific groups under the headings of Equal Employment Opportunities and Affirmative Action, measures which were very soon to be exposed as preference for particular groups and rejected as “reverse” discrimination. Now the managers had almost the whole of society against them: the SWAMS (Straight White American Males), who felt themselves disadvantaged by quotas, as well as women and the minorities (African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, gays, etc.) who still had no real clout in the economy. In the mid-1980s, all this discontent prompted ten big firms to join together in devising a concept intended to bring the “great diversity” – majority and minorities – under one umbrella with the promise of a whole range of economic benefits. The idea behind “diversity” is to take into account every employee, whether male or female, with all their qualities and specific characteristics, so as to integrate each and every one of them and thereby enable them to contribute their utmost to the success of the firm.
Easier said than done: for decades the economy had been looking for recruits who “fit in” and with whom brotherly bonds could be forged. And now suddenly women, foreigners, gays, disabled people, Hindus and goodness knows what else were about to pop up in their illustrious ranks and destroy their hard-won cosy little world? That is precisely what happened and the ten trailblazers of that time are now already reaping their first rewards. They and others now rank among the most popular employers and the most successful on their markets. Amongst them we find Hewlett-Packard and Rank Xerox, Ford and Motorola, Levi and American Express, to name but a few who are also active and well-known in Europe. With their far-reaching anti-discrimination guidelines and diversity-friendly business principles, these firms began to prepare the ground for cultural change. Time and again, the top managers came out clearly and unmistakably in favour of the development of diversity and even laid it down in their directors’ job descriptions. Moreover, both managerial staff and employees were offered workshops to become more aware of differences and be trained in proper responses to them.
The success of diversity depends essentially on the recognition and rejection of deep-rooted prejudices and preconceptions such as exist at the levels of staff recruitment, evaluation and promotion. There are plenty of commonplace associations which serve as illustrations here:
1. When a male employee goes for a meal with his boss it is assumed that he is working on his career, but when a female employee does the same she is suspected of having an affair with the boss and of trying to “sleep her way up the ladder”.
2. When a male employee keeps a photograph of his wife on his desk he is seen as a good family man, but when a female employee does the same she is thought likely to sacrifice everything for her family, so that the firm would be better advised not to invest too much in her.
Once employees’ awareness of differences has been heightened and many stereotypes have been dismantled, work can begin in earnest on putting diversity to good use in the firm. This includes employee groups (male or female) or networks which bring together a particular type of person, for example gays and lesbians. These are then able to disseminate information about their situation throughout the firm. In the USA, Gay Pride is for example also celebrated in the cafeteria in many firms and of course the official group from the firm also takes part in the parade. Not least, diversity is also reflected in the marketing and sales fields: target groups are defined on the basis of hard market data going beyond conventional ideas of “mainstream”. In this way, those who speak an immigrant language or old people are just as specifically targeted as lone parents or working women.
Diversity is thus an intellectual concept which can be applied to all aspects of a firm’s day-today business. It is a tool which can enable virtually all areas of business activity to become more successful. At the same time, diversity does not amount to a new “programme” or “special area” placing a burden on the organisation or its budget. Could something so “exotic” catch on in Germany? It already has. American firms are already in their starting blocks in Europe, ready to make use of their innovative understanding of employees and markets as a trump card. They are exploiting their “diverse” company culture in order to attract the best employees and successfully open up new markets.
Regardless of competition considerations, there are indications to suggest that Europe also needs diversity-based management. European firms are feeling the rising heat of international competition, with the result that many see the globalisation to which everyone attaches so much importance as their only chance. However, this also means that the fields of activity and participants are becoming increasingly diverse, a fact which decision-makers are having to cope with or at least coming to realise.
Meanwhile, European integration is contributing to this process by virtue of the fact that the population of every EU country is becoming increasingly mixed. In Germany, for example, a good nine percent of the population are now foreigners, a figure set to rise to over twenty percent in twenty years’ time – roughly as many as in the US melting pot today. Demands for greater profitability continue to exert pressure on firms to reduce costs and raise productivity and turnover. Diversity serves as a helpful instrument here. Studies have shown moreover that firms whose staff closely reflects the local population are more successful than others.
Unmistakable changes are taking place in society and therefore also in the employment and sales markets of many firms. More and more people are living alone, do not belong to any of the major religions, are bringing up their children alone or are living as unmarried couples. It is perfectly clear: the world order is moving away from the image of the traditional family.
And by the same token, ideas as to what a workplace or an employer has to offer – and to expect – are changing. The increasing self-awareness of gays and lesbians is part of this trend. Just four years ago there were fewer than half as many Gay Pride events as there were this year, and attendance is now fifty times what it was in 1993. Obviously, these people are also feeling an increasing desire to enjoy the same harmony between their private and working lives as their workmates, by being able to chat about their weekend or be accompanied by their partner to any social functions that may be held.
German and European firms are thus having to operate in what is in many respects an increasingly dynamic environment. In this situation, diversity holds out enormous opportunities and potential for development, especially in the highly competitive sectors and at international level.
Making diversity part of everyday routine harbours practically no dangers for the organisation concerned. Nonetheless, many errors are frequently observed when diversity is introduced, such as insufficient involvement of top managers, inadequate financial resources or excessive concentration on training. The result of this is generally that the positive effects of “real” diversity-based management are not achieved and in the end resources are wasted. For gays and lesbians, diversity is the first management concept which naturally places them in a position of equality with other groups and, without any note of “exoticism”, brings about a type of integration which is accepted on all sides. The concept shows moreover how important – and successful – comprehensive, inclusive approaches are and gives the lie to representatives of self-interest. The gay movement has just as much to learn from this as those in charge of equal opportunities for women in the public and private sectors.
MICHAEL STUBER, PUBLISHED IN EGALITÉ NEWSLETTER, DEC. 1998