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Career Challenge

Common Ground for Differences

As offices become more diverse, employers are seeking new approaches to cultural and ethnic issues.

July 15, 2001|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Before Vivek Wadhwa intervened, culture clashes rocked Relativity Technologies.

American employees at the Cary, N.C., firm insulted newly immigrated Russian co-workers by talking down to them, said Wadhwa, the company's co-founder and chief executive.

Russian employees marched stonily down the hallways, suspicious of passersby who waved and smiled. Indian employees stoically tolerated verbal abuse from an American manager.

"Oh, we had such blowups," Wadhwa said.

Immediate action was required: His Russian workers were threatening to walk off the job. His Indian workers were stressed and upset.

Wadhwa realized that Relativity's conflicts occurred because of serious cross-cultural misunderstandings. Each faction had made erroneous assumptions about the others, then behaved in ways that caused offense.

The American employees believed that, because the Russians spoke limited English, they were not highly skilled, Wadhwa said. But, the Russian programmers had more technical knowledge than the Americans; some had even been employed by the KGB.

The Russian employees had been taught to be serious on the job. They thought their American co-workers, who smiled and waved at them in the hallway, were demonstrating unprofessional, mocking conduct.

Relativity's newly arrived Indian workers assumed they had no right to protest their ill-treatment by the American manager. Their lack of response seemed to provoke him further. Wadhwa, who also is Indian, encouraged them to report future breaches of conduct, then chastised the offending manager.

In the 1990s, American businesses turned to diversity training to educate employees about racial and ethnic issues and prevent such disputes.

But some workplace experts say the programs haven't lived up to expectations.

A study by the Center for the New American Workplace concluded that diversity training (which, in some cases, consists only of a brief lecture or seminar) hasn't translated into improvements in employees' work lives or relationships.

Some companies offer the programs as symbolic gestures; others do so without senior management's support, according to the Academy of Management Executive, a trade journal.

Although more than 52% of American companies utilize diversity training programs, racial and ethnic harassment in the workplace remains a serious problem.

But forward-thinking companies are taking innovative steps to ensure that cultural and ethnic differences are respected and valued in their workplaces.

IBM, Xerox and DuPont sponsor ethnic caucuses for their African American, Latino and Asian employees, in which workers discuss concerns and explore ways to improve their job experiences. Federal Express offers minority mentoring programs.

UPS sends its managers into communities markedly different from their own to educate them about diversity issues.

Multinationals such as Colgate-Palmolive, which sells products in 215 countries, are building work forces reflective of the global communities they serve.

This will become increasingly important in the future, said Larry Norton, managing director of PeopleSolutions in Houston.

Of the 1,000 largest U.S. industrial firms, 700 expect their overseas growth to exceed their domestic growth over the next four years, according to the trade journal Social Work.

"If you're in an international organization, I think you're a fool not to have that type of representation," Norton said. "I've seen organizations fail because they didn't think through how to launch a product in a foreign company."

Numerous challenges remain, even for the best-intentioned firms.

Some must operate in countries that condone discriminatory practices.

Colgate-Palmolive approaches this problem by demonstrating respect for its host countries, encouraging collaborative efforts, but not permitting discrimination in its ranks.

Other companies have valued clients who express prejudices that threaten to damage them legally or financially.

Such was the dilemma of a large U.S. bank, when a major investor refused to permit a female Chinese financial advisor to handle his account, said David Tulin, president of Tulin DiversiTeam in Philadelphia, who was called in by the bank to help resolve the problem.

With Tulin's aid, the bank avoided a crisis. The client's former financial advisor, a white male about to retire, proposed a solution to the client.

"We actually wrote a script," Tulin said.

"He told the client, 'I will give you the best person for your portfolio--not necessarily the person you're most comfortable with at first--but I'll stay on to help smooth the transition.' "

Occasionally, top-level executives remain unaware of cultural and ethnic conflicts.

Diversity experts such as Phyllis Haynes, partner at North Bergen, N.J.-based Inter-Change Consultants, recommend that firms periodically conduct audits of their workplace practices.

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