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Gain a competitive edge through diversity

May 9, 2012

Coming this summer from the AOA Paraoptometric Section: “Communicating with Hispanic Patients” (paraoptometric staff guide booklet). For more multicultural diversity resources, visit http://www.aoa.org/x12961.xml.

By Joan Abney, manager, Paraoptometric Section

More than half of the workers in the United States are minorities. Optometric practices should understand diversity in the workplace will increase significantly in the coming years. Successful practices recognize the need for action now and have a willingness to spend resources on managing diversity in the workplace.

Diversity is not only about preventing unfair discrimination and improving equality, but also about valuing differences and inclusion. It involves how people perceive themselves and how they perceive others, which affects their interactions.

Diversity exists in the workplace because people experience a group identity through their gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, physical abilities, beliefs, fashion, and even diet. The workplace environment should facilitate looking beyond surface appearances to find the common humanity of each individual and the talents he or she brings to the organization.

Management must be willing to work toward changing the work environment in order to create diversity and inclusion (how an organization utilizes its various relevant diversities). Optometric practices that are willing to adapt their work environment may enjoy greater profits and better staff performance. Practices that are more globally oriented and experienced can achieve greater harmony and attain higher productivity which gains a competitive edge for them.

There are three types of structural integration for diversity in an organization. The first type is a monolithic organization. This structural integration for diversity is minimal. Typically, it is composed of white males as the majority representing the overall employee population. There are few women and minority men in management positions in this homogeneous organization structure. The second type is a plural organization or heterogeneous population. It is inclusive of persons from diverse backgrounds that differ from the dominant group. Research has shown that heterogeneous groups outperform homogeneous groups. The third type of structural integration is a multicultural organization. It is composed of individuals representing many different culture groups; it also values and utilizes diversity to its fullest potential.

Harassment can occur in any diverse workforce and in any job situation.

Training for sensitivity and awareness are necessary to understand that respect for others’ differences is not only the right thing to do, but is required by law.

Training can help recognize and prevent harassment. Staff will learn how to resolve the situation, thus protecting the practice and the employees; management would not want a situation to elevate from “just kidding around” to illegal harassment.

Gaining the competitive edge

Optometric practices may reap the benefits of having a culturally diverse workplace. A main benefit is creativity. The combined talents and experiences of staff from diverse backgrounds provides fertile ground for creative thinking and insightful alternatives. Diversity can supply a greater variety of solutions to problems.

Individual talents and experiences provide a diverse collection of skills that enable the practice to provide service to patients on a global basis. Varying points of view provide a larger pool of ideas and skills that may aid in meeting business strategic needs and the needs of patients more effectively. Patients may be able to identify with staff and staff may have a better understanding of patients through diversity training and awareness. Practices may be able to provide a broader range of service to groups that normally may not have felt comfortable in the practice. By being able to understand the demographics of the marketplace, the practice is better equipped to thrive in that marketplace.

Having an office that embraces individual differences allows employees to perform to their highest ability, which promotes higher productivity, profits and return on investment for the practice. The employee may feel needed and have a sense of belonging that may increase their commitment to the practice. They may also experience increased job satisfaction and as a result are more likely to stay with the practice.

Challenges to diversity in the workplace

  • Communication is one of the biggest barriers to overcome in a diverse workforce. In her book, “Developing Receiver-Centered Communication in Diverse Organizations,” Judi Brownell states, “The meaning of messages can never be completely shared because no two individuals experience events in exactly the same way.” If communication is misunderstood or misinterpreted because of perception, cultural interpretations, or language barriers; confusion, lack of teamwork and low morale may occur.

Management needs to involve everyone in the process of formulating and executing diversity initiatives. All communications from management should be reviewed carefully to decrease any chance of misunderstanding the intended message.

  • Cultural bias brought on by prejudice (negative attitudes based on culture group identity) and discrimination (observable adverse behavior for the same reason) must be addressed. It is important to educate staff about laws and regulations concerning discrimination through diversity training.
  • If employees are denied the ability to express their genuine selves in the workplace, they have to repress parts of their lives within the social context of their daily encounters with others. The amount of energy needed to try to take in and incorporate the organization’s culture as their own will leave them less energy to do their job. This emotional drain may influence their ability to succeed and can decrease productivity for the practice.
  • Staff may be resistant to change due to the implementation of a diversity initiative. Attitudes of “we’ve always done it this way” silences new ideas and inhibits progress. Helping staff understand “what’s in it for them” in any situation requiring change is vitally important for the success of the change to actually occur. Creating a fair and safe environment where everyone has access to opportunities and challenges increases the acceptance of diversity in the workplace.
  • It is important for management to model a positive attitude toward diversity. Acceptance of diversity must originate from the top and filter downward. Management must commit to develop, implement and manage a customized strategy to maximize the effects of diversity in the workplace. It must permeate from every department and function of the organization. Modeling an attitude of openness in the workplace will set an example for others to follow.

Relating to your patients and practice success

It is important to understand that diversity in the workplace does not stop with your staff. Through diversity training, staff will gain a better understanding of the patients they serve. They will be able to apply the principles of acceptance and respect not only to their co-workers, but also to the patients they serve.

Optometric practices will need to accept that they are part of a worldwide economy with competition coming from all over. Practices need diversity to become more creative and open to change. Once practices recognize the way in which the workplace is changing, evolving, and diversifying; they will be better prepared to teach themselves and staff the value of multicultural differences. In an era where flexibility and creativity are keys to competiveness, diversity is critical for success.

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