Embracing Diversity

Why Isn’t My Diverse Staff Getting Along?

The call for culturally competent employees who can thrive in diverse work environments is nothing new (Smith & Schonfeld, 2000). We must be able to work with dissimilar others in our global society. However, maintaining healthy and diverse work environments continues to be an issue. Ellen Pao recently made waves by suing Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination (Brody, 2015), and of the 99,947 charges of employment discrimination received by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EOOC) from 2011 to 2014, the most frequent was racial discrimination at 35% (NLCATP, 2014).

The truth is, simply implementing diversity policies on the macro-level of organizations is not enough. Organizations must focus on changing workplace cultures to promote the prevention of discrimination. Only then can they fully capitalize on the benefits diversity has to offer.

Contrary to traditional organizational beliefs, relationships among employees are of relevant concern to managers because they affect the productivity of the business. Social capital refers to the structure and quality of social relationships between individuals, and is considered to be the most important ingredient for action and value creation in the workplace. It is a powerful antecedent for efficient collaboration – the stronger the relationships among employees, the more likely they are to be productive and innovative (Galli & Muller-Stewens, 2012).

Strong relationships are built on trust and shared meaning, regardless of whether these relationships are strictly instrumental (i.e. work-functions only), expressive (i.e. friendship-based), or multiplex (i.e. encompassing both career and psychosocial functions). Being able to trust someone requires a willingness to be vulnerable, which is often hard to do. It’s especially difficult when you cannot identify with the other person on the levels of gender and race because you perceive them to be ‘too different’ (Hill & Kamprath, 1995).

This creates a paradox for diverse organizations: the more diverse an organization is, the more potential there is for social capital to dissipate due to lack of relation among employees. So what’s the fix?

The answer may lie in the emerging social capital oriented leadership development perspective, which acknowledges leadership to be an ongoing, relational process that occurs among all staff members, regardless of formal positions. The ultimate goal is to expand the collective capacity of staff members so they can learn their way out of problems together, which can provide prevention benefits for the entire organization in the long run. The two main functions of interest in employee relationships – social awareness (i.e. empathy) and social skills (i.e. collaboration and conflict management) – that contribute to this goal are also useful in cultivating social capital in diverse relationships (Galli & Muller-Stewens, 2012).

First and foremost, organizations must create a culture that recognizes difference versus one that is color-blind. In a color-blind organization, minorities (i.e. all who are not white males) are stereotyped as representing the entire minority group instead of being perceived as individuals. This means that before interaction, one has already made an unconscious presumption of how a given individual will act based on negative social stereotypes of their race, gender, age, sexual-orientation, or other diversifying characteristics. The only way to confront these stereotypes is to bring awareness to them and accept them for what they are: products of social inequalities rather than a reflection of your minority coworker’s character.

Severing stereotypes from the concept of “otherness” allows employees to address the complexities involved in cross-gender or cross-racial relationships with sensitivity. Research demonstrates that work relationships in which differences are embraced and discussed are more successful than those in which such topics are ignored (Hill & Kamprath, 1995). In fact, engagement with diversity fosters critical thinking skills because both parties are exposed to alternative viewpoints, which broadens perspectives and yields more complex analyses (Smith & Schonefeld, 2000). The social skills required for maximum productivity in the workplace can now be honed in new ways that benefit both the organization and its employees.

Cultivating a healthy, diverse organizational culture should be perceived as an opportunity for personal, cognitive, and professional growth among employees. In turn, social capital will be strengthened, which will increase the organization’s productivity and foster a positive work culture. It’s never too late to start cultivating relationships among employees with diversity goals in mind.


Galli, E. B., & Muller-Stewens, G. (2012). How to build social capital with leadership development: Lessons from an explorative case stud of a multibusiness firm. The Leadership Quarterly, 23(1), 176-201.

NLCATP (National Anti-Alcohol and Tobacco Blog). (2014). Racial discrimination in the workplace statistics [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://nlcatp.org/racial-discrimination-in-the-workplace-statistics/.

Hill, L. A., & Kamprath, N. (1995). Beyond the myth of the perfect mentor: Building a network of developmental relationships. Harvard Business School, 491(96).

Brody, R. (2015, March 30). Views you can use: What Ellen Pao means for tech. U.S. News. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2015/03/30/ellen-pao-case-highlights-gender-discrimination-in-tech-pundits-react.

Smith, D. G., & Schonfeld, N. B. (2000). The benefits of diversity: What the research tells us. About Campus, 5(5), 16-23.