Workplace diversity can bring inner conflict to an organization, but that’s a good thing as long as it’s managed in such a way that the diverse individuals, their team and the entire organization can use it as a tool for growth.
That was just one of many points made by Lawrence Houston III, assistant professor of management at the College of Business, during a May 20 panel discussion at Austin Hall’s Stirek Auditorium: “Diversity in the Workplace: What leaders need to know.”
Joining Houston on the panel were Angela Batista, Oregon State’s interim chief diversity officer, and two Oregon State alumni: Tim Hall, class of 1978, chairman of the President’s Board of Visitors for Community and Diversity at OSU, and Monica Baez, class of 1987, a State Farm agent and the owner of the Monica Baez Insurance Agency, Inc., in Corvallis.
Audrey Iffert-Saleem, executive director of strategic initiatives at the College of Business, moderated the 75-minute discussion, during which each panelist shared a range of personal and professional perspectives.
Hall, who’s had a long career in public relations/public affairs, noted that when he was enrolled at Oregon State, he was one of just a couple dozen black students on campus. Batista described a background that included arriving in New York as a child-immigrant from the Caribbean who spoke no English, and Baez recounted being told how she was likely to get certain jobs solely on the basis of being a female minority.
“How do you think that makes you feel?” she asked, referring to having her abilities deemed not as important as her gender or ethnicity.
Houston, who studies workplace diversity, said organizations need to make a point to explain the purpose of minority-focused programs, both to minorities and non-minorities. Understanding why programs are in place helps everyone accept them, and use them. Houston recalled how as a graduate student at Penn State, he purposely avoided minority-focused programs – he is black – because he was offended by what he perceived as the implication he couldn’t succeed without them.
Had the programs’ purpose been stated clearly, he said, Houston realized later that he likely would’ve taken advantage of some of them.
In the workplace, simply having people of different nationalities, ethnic groups, religions, etc. doesn’t by itself complete the diversity puzzle, he said.
“Inclusivity means people feel that they’re valued as well feeling like they belong,” Houston said.
Both Houston and Hall touched on effective hiring.
“Human resources departments do need to discriminate – that’s what they do,” he said. “It doesn’t do anyone any good for someone to be hired who can’t succeed. Organizations need to hire people who can do the job and then put them in positions where they can succeed and be promoted.”
Hall said experience has taught him that pretty much all people, regardless of their status or non-status as a minority, can handle not getting hired as long as they’ve gotten a real chance to compete for the job.
“The hiring process must be fair, equitable and honest,” he said. “Productivity suffers when workers see leaders embrace cronyism.”
What leaders need to do, Houston said, after following the type of hiring process Hall says is critical, is “create an environment where it’s OK to disagree” and then manage that disagreement in ways that foster growth.