Lori Suva is a middle-aged woman living in a small midwestern town. She is a native of Kadavu Island, Fiji’s fourth largest island in the Southwest Pacific. American tourism brochures typically describe Fiji’s 330 islands as “the land of broad smiles, flashing white teeth, gentle relaxation and absolutely no stress.”
But this morning Suva isn’t smiling and she is stressed, after being up all night preparing for a special company-wide multicultural dinner. Her company’s annual affair is expected to help co-workers appreciate Suva’s culture. Everyone will love her special sweet potato and pineapple bake; they always do. They will enjoy looking at slides of Suva’s last trip home. They probably don’t realize the extra hours it takes Suva to prepare for this special event, especially since her children are very young and she must first tuck them into bed before she starts cooking.
Suva wonders what it would like to stay below the radar and just do her work. Maybe next year everyone will be happy if she hands out her Fiji recipes and skips the cooking. “Well, it is a thought,” she muses, while packing up her car with food and the slide projector — and her children who she will drop off at the babysitter’s.
Managing diversity is still a very new idea for many companies. Granted, experiencing food from another culture is an important experience for Suva’s co-workers who, mostly, have never traveled outside of their state.
Will this dinner meet expectations of the company’s CEO, a man who travels to many countries and who frequently shares his multicultural experiences with his employees? Will this dinner help employees learn to work together in groups and to consider the unique contributions from individuals? Will all employees experience empowerment once they have eaten Suva’s food? Will the company grow and prosper in today’s competitive, global environment?
Easing Into Diversity From Affirmative Action
Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr., considered the country’s foremost diversity thought leader, would likely see some gain from Suva’s meal, probably describing the event as a move from affirmative action into valuing differences, a necessary pathway for easing the transition into managing diversity.
Companies like Suva’s employer and other organizations are often sensitive to diversity, and see the need for some type of action to help people “understand differences,” and plan activities such as special minority dinners. Or they might invite noted diversity speakers for workshops or introduce “culture” clubs meant to establish awareness of and respect for differences in the workplace.
College campuses typically have special programs such as “foreign students clubs” that plan special dinners for their members and guests (with members doing the cooking of cultural dishes) or do other things, like appear in local parades or go on special trips.
“Differences” programs at work and school are targeted to non-majority group individuals and interpersonal levels, trying to improve relationships among employees and/or students and to minimize blatant behaviors like racism, sexism or gay bashing.
Usually the goal is to help individuals become aware of differences and accept or tolerate each other. Participants are often led to explore how their differences might be “tapped into” as assets in the organization.
Valuing Differences Not Enough
Organizations having difficulty with employees or student relations often find valuing differences can help — at least to improve relationships and minimize some of the worst behaviors.
But claiming to value differences is not enough to create an empowered workforce or student body, and this is where a true commitment to managing diversity comes into play. For all students, employees and other organizational members to reach their full potentials naturally, managing diversity is the critical key and is the focus of Cash In On Diversity; How Getting Along With Others Pays Off . Lori Suva’s employer recently started transitioning from valuing differences into managing diversity with the hiring of a diversity officer, a middle-aged white woman who has years of experience in human relations and diversity. And who knows?
The new diversity officer said that by next year, the annual “Suva dinner” might be replaced by a dinner where all employees bring a favorite dish and family photos representing their ethnic roots. “That is, if they know their family history,” she added.