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It’s no secret that America’s cultural landscape is rapidly changing which has had a major impact on everything from the way we speak, to foods we eat. From a business standpoint, diversity has also had a major impact on how we work and how we train an ever-changing, culturally diverse workforce. The U.S. Census estimates that by the year 2050, new immigrants and their offspring will account for 83% of growth in the working-age population. Diversity has many benefits including a broader service range, multiple viewpoints, a more skilled workforce, and even lower employee turnover.

Diversity can also present unique and downright frustrating challenges like workplace hostility, resistance to change, and communication issues. If addressed properly, overcoming these obstacles can not only  provide a company with new opportunities and insights, it can also help strengthen a brand from the inside out.

What happens when employers face multiple major diversity issues like language and religion? States like Minnesota and Ohio are home to many of America’s largest corporate headquarters. They are home to the nation’s largest Somolian immigrant population. For companies in these areas, both language and religion come into play, when it comes to managing their Muslim, Somali-speaking workers.  Many employers are left scratching their heads as they try to strike a balance between productivity and their employees’ right to worship.

Even workers’ traditional dress requirements can come into play. Earlier this year, Diane’s Fine Desserts in Le Center, Minnesota, lost dozens of Somali workers after the company put a dress code in place that restricted female workers from wearing long skirts. Keeping the body covered is a religious custom that is strictly followed by many Muslim women however the company viewed the long dresses and skirts as a safety violation. The workers were told to either stop wearing long skirts or leave, a move that resulted in the resignation of over thirty workers who cited that the new dress code conflicted with their religious beliefs.

Employee tension and resentment from both native English-speaking employees and their non-native English-speaking counterparts is not uncommon. A major retailer in Columbus, Ohio has had difficulty managing employee relations.  Native English-speaking workers have asked management to require that only English be spoken in the workplace. Many of the workers feel uncomfortable around their Somali-speaking co-workers and believe that their Somali colleagues are talking about them in their native tongue. This naturally, has angered the Somali workers, some of whom speak poor English and would find it extremely challenging to speak English for an entire shift.

The Islamic prayer call has also presented an issue for companies in this region, particularly for those whose Somali employees work primarily in production. During the  Islamic prayer call, which occurs five times a day, Muslims must stop what they are doing and pray. The prayers usually last about 5-7 minutes.The prayer call has presented several issues, the first being the most obvious, production. Companies must decide how to walk the line between not infringing on employees right to worship and not letting this right interfere with the company’s bottom line.

In November, DHL management in Cincinnati created a PR nightmare for DHL after they recently fired 24 Muslim workers for praying on the job. The new head manager at that location recently made changes to the company’s flexible break policy, which allowed Muslim workers to take their break during their prayer time. DHL is currently investigating this issue but the backlash could be huge for the international shipping company.

These recent cautionary tales begs the question: What is the best way for a company to navigate these delicate diversity issues?  Here are a few options:

  • Delegate Choose one or several members from the cultural group in question to act as a leader(s). These leaders can help with translating and clarifying training information, which can help to reduce miscommunications and increase productivity.
  • Flexible Break Times– Flexible break times allow employees to take their allotted break at a time that is convenient for them. They may choose to use this time as they wish: for prayer, a smoking break, to make a personal call, etc. Flexible breaks not only give workers more freedom and privacy but they also help reduce hostility from other co-workers who may view Muslim workers prayer time as an extra break. Flexible breaks create a sense of equity among co-workers and aids in building trust between a company and its employees. Everyone wins!    
  • Open the Lines of Communication– Ask for employee feedback on the companies’ current policies. Changes to the policy may not be possible but perhaps there are ways to make them more flexible or to make accommodations for the group in question in a way that is fair for all employees. These type of round-table discussions are also a good opportunity for the group’s ambassadors to bring any unresolved issues or concerns to the forefront.

What tips or suggestions to you have for addressing the issue of diversity in the workplace? Share them in the comments section below.

Photo: freedigitalphoto.com HUMAN_RESOURCE