Handling Conflict In A Diverse Work Environment

Find the right place and time to air your differences

Assembling a diverse workforce to maximize benefits at a corporation is the easy part. Managing the inevitable conflict requires talent.

As director of diversity and multinational people strategies at Booz Allen Hamilton, Patrick McLaurin has witnessed a pendulum swing since he started consulting. McLaurin is in charge of a three-year effort to transform the firm’s culture so that it includes diversity. As part of that initiative, he has developed Ten Things to Know About Climate & Culture Change.

Twenty years ago, people didn’t want to talk about diversity in the workplace. Today, diversity is a reality at every level in corporate America. Unfortunately, the complexities of the changing workforce have led some to resort to silence rather than voicing their difference of opinions.

“Diversity efforts can silence open and honest communication,” McLaurin says. “That’s bad for both the company and the individual.” Misperceptions about different cultures have become stumbling blocks for communication. McLaurin explains that at times non-minority managers want to give constructive criticism but they’re afraid someone will accuse them of being racist.

“There’s general agreement that diverse minds will create better solutions, but the reality is it often takes longer and the process can be messy,” says McLaurin.

McLaurin offers this advice to diverse employees who want to ensure they get support and necessary guidance on the job:

Establish trust with a manager before you run into a problem. For example, a gay employee may want to ask a supervisor’s opinion about bringing his partner to the company’s picnic. If a supervisor has to worry about being sued, he or she might go with the safe answer of telling him to do what he wants. If trust has been established, the answer is more likely to be truthful.

Make sure your manager knows you value honest and objective feedback. Don’t make race a factor in your conversation. Let your manager know you are only interested in effective performance.

Choose the right time to have conversations that could lead to conflict. Preferably this should take place outside the work environment. An appropriate approach is to seek advice or professional mentorship and then express your concerns.

Don’t do it during performance evaluations because people often feel threatened and defensive at this time. Potentially sensitive issues should be discussed in a neutral environment.

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