What Diversity Issues do South African Businesses Face?

By Teresa Oakley-Smith

All too often in South African businesses, diversity issues and the management thereof is conceptualised as a problem or as a source of potential conflict which needs to be managed whereas the opposite is true. Effective diversity management provides a competitive edge improving productivity and profitability.

As we approach some twenty years post democracy, South African businesses are challenged and strengthened by a number of diversity issues. It is important to realise that those companies that not only have diversity, but also value and manage diversity effectively, have a great advantage over those who do not.

There is a wealth of evidence worldwide which shows a clear correlation between diversity and profitability. The companies which take the time and effort to develop positive relationships between employees and between subordinates and managers have the edge every time in combating prejudice in the workplace.

The kinds of diversity issues which occur in most South African businesses include race, gender, religion, culture, language and generation or age. Race is and will always be a diversity issue in South Africa. We need to learn and encourage employees to develop improved race relations, which can be accomplished through effective diversity training.

Though diversity training alone cannot be a panacea for improving race relations it can provide a strong foundation on which to build. Taking it one step further anti-racism training has been successfully developed by Diversi-T and this is a more focused training than diversity management training alone. Conflict management is less likely to occur in those organisations which implement a successful process of transformation supported by diversity management training.

Similarly gender, which continues to bedevil many South African companies, is of significant importance in South Africa and a prominent diversity issue. A recent report from Stats SA shows that women are not only employed less often, but are paid less well than their male counterparts. For black women the situation is even worse as they are paid less than their male counterparts and less than white women doing the same work.

Effective diversity training provides a platform to deal with these inequities and also serves as a platform for addressing stereotyping and sexual harassment. Discrimination in the workplace is also more easily addressed in an environment where race and gender are taken seriously as and effective education takes place around these diversity issues.

Generational Differences

At Diversi-T we have recently found that generational differences are becoming increasingly important diversity issues in the South African workplace. There are often three generations working side-by-side (namely: Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y) providing fertile ground for misunderstanding and prejudice. Again, generational differences have the potential to add significant value to the workplace once these differences are understood and managed effectively.

Effective diversity training needs to incorporate information on generational differences in order to bring about effective organisational change. Typically, generational diversity impacts on management/employee relationships and therefore needs to be incorporated into management of diversity training. Where managers are Baby Boomers and employees are Generation X or Y, there is a need to consider changing management styles to address generational differences in order to bring out the best in employees. Similarly, reward and recognition systems need to acknowledge different styles of working. This is part and parcel of effective organisational change management.

Religious Differences

Religion is a further significant diversity issue in the South African workplace which can benefit from effective diversity awareness training. As a multi-faith country, South African workplaces are likely to have Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jewish employees, and others working together and the better educated they are about one another’s faith, the more likely it is that a positive organisational culture will develop. Such an organisational culture will aid motivation, productivity and profitability. An effective change management strategy looks not just to end discrimination in terms of race, gender, generation and age but to leverage the positive values that such diversity issues can bring.

Other diversity issues which form part and parcel of effective diversity training include issues such as language, ethnicity, culture and job levels and categories. Effective human resource development and organisational development should address all of these areas, and incorporate effective diversity management strategies into the KPIs of all managers and supervisors. It is true to say that most of us attend primarily to what is measured and rewarded and diversity management training is no exception.

Managing diversity requires considerable expertise and experience and we believe that Diversi-T has the necessary skill to help all organisations to deal with diversity issues.