Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Celebrate diversity, but universality too

Diversity implies uniqueness and a level of exclusivity, which could draw lines between employees. If we also stress universality, which highlights that all human beings have some things in common despite their differences, we could create a more inclusive environment

Published: Jul 24, 2019 12:07:41 PM IST
Updated: Jul 24, 2019 12:21:49 PM IST

Celebrate diversity, but universality tooImage: Shutterstock

'We celebrate diversity!' This catchphrase has become a talking point at almost all agile organisations, who serve a diverse workforce. Investment in diversity initiatives has become an integral part of their business strategy today. Though the best practices of many organisations revolve around gender diversity, other dimensions of diversity such as sexual orientation or cognitive styles are gradually coming into play.

Originally emanating from 'Equal Employment Opportunity' from a social justice standpoint, and the emergence of 'Affirmative Action' to level the playing field for under-representative sections of the society, the concept of diversity has now made headway to the business milieu. It is based on the premise that people are unique in various characteristics such as gender, race, religion, nationality, geography, ideologies, social status and many others. If the workplace consists of people representing these unique characteristics, they bring multiple perspectives to the table and these diverse inputs pave the way for higher productivity. Workplace diversity measures encompass corporate initiatives that give enough representation to diverse characteristics by incorporating them into the organisational life cycle. 

Gone are the days when the melting pot hypothesis cast a spell on scholars of the earlier century. It is null and void today as people prefer to live with differences at the workplace rather than melt into one mono culture. Diversity is built on this foundation. No doubt, there are many positives on the side of a diversity campaigner and companies sing their own praises on their diversity measures; however, they are often unable to cut the mustard measuring efficacy of its implementation. 

If we peep inside the minds of working professionals, some of the voices will shed more light upon this issue. A senior professional contemplated, ''Being a multilinguistic and multicultural country, diversity is a signature identity of Indian culture. We used to celebrate diverse cultural practices at the workplace, before diversity became known as a business case. But the moment companies began to take explicit measures for its implementation, employees became more and more conscious of the differences than the resemblances. How can teams work together if differences are stressed more than similitudes? Diversity measures are creating a wall between employees.''

''Diversity is trending in business now and the companies are playing it by ear. Diversity will not survive without creating an inclusive environment. Measures are carried out for diversity but what corporates lack today is inclusion. First, create an inclusive environment and then cogitate on diversity. Diversity follows inclusion, but a reverse is not true,'' another professional vented.

''There are cross-cultural differences at the workplace. The same words are interpreted differently and sometimes incorrectly, due to which teammates work at cross purposes and team synergy goes for a toss. The team members shield their individuality by becoming more and more inward. They turn out to be ultrasensitive to the differences. An unintentional remark may land us in a soup. The workplace is losing its sense of humour day by day,'' Another senior executive stated.

The aforementioned state of affairs draws attention to the fact that diversity on its own will not hit the ground running. Today, diversity is perceived in the vein of acknowledging differences in people. Hence, diversity measures pitch more into recruiting diverse talents. But, this understanding of diversity is not up to snuff. By hiring a diverse workforce, differences among employees are taken into account; which makes one ponder if the workplaces are practically ready to accept these differences freeheartedly.

Workplace diversity expects that the employees contribute in a unique way, but the uniqueness will not be blossom into action unless it is not accepted at the workplace. Uniqueness nurtures exclusivity. Exclusivity could draw a deep line between people.  

Laying emphasis on universality along with diversity could be a silver lining to the current situation, which has already missed the mark. In other words, diversity will sustain only if it shifts its focus from exclusivity to universality. Universality broadly refers to accepting that all human beings possess some common characteristics irrespective of their differences. They may include all cognitive and affective characteristics that make us human. If companies bring universality to the fore in their campaign along with diversity, employees will give their consideration to commonalties as well. In consequence, they will become more tolerant towards differences. Acceptance is a step ahead of a tolerance. Universality will give rise to the culture of acceptance where collaborative efforts will be done to understand each other's common and different backgrounds, life journeys and beliefs, and learn to capitalise on them. An inclusive culture will come into existence in a true sense. At that point in time, diversity and inclusion will not remain two distinct concepts, but will evenly match each other and companies will have new catchline: We celebrate Diversity and Universality'.    

Prof. Dr. Anjali Joshi is Associate Dean & Professor, Human Resources , S.P. Mandali’s Prin. L.N. Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research (WeSchool). Her interests lie in Organisational Behaviour, Performance Management, Managerial Counselling, and Competency Management. Views are personal.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research (WeSchool)]