No more crabby workplaces: Working together on diversity

Crabby Office Lady: (c) Microsoft Crabby Office Lady

This week we're going to explore the sensitive topic of what diversity means and why it's so important to the health of a company, not to mention the dispositions and perspectives of its employees.

Crabby Office Lady columns
Crabby’s blog
Crabby’s podcasts

In the United States, we like to refer to our country as a great "melting pot." While a snappy, all-inclusive moniker is one thing, living up to that label — and rising to the occasion of it — is quite another.

 Note   The world is a constantly changing and evolving place and the societies we live in reflect this, so even if you neither live nor work in the U.S., chances are that you do work with a diverse group of people (whether you know it or not). Diversity is not exclusive to the United States. Nor is striving to keep it alive and well in the workplace.

If you're like me, you read a lot — you try to keep up with what's going on in the world, and, again, if you're like me, perhaps you've come to the conclusion that an awful lot of the strife and fighting going on among the citizens of this lovely blue planet we call home happens because we don't understand each other's cultures, differences, ways of living, and the choices each person has made for him or herself. Frankly, I think we're doing ourselves a real disservice here by not allowing everyone to be who they are and contribute what they can.

And that is why I decided to write a column this week about diversity in the workplace.

What does diversity have to do with the Crabby Office Lady?

I normally write about Office products such as Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, and so on. I try to advise you about how to make the best use of certain features, such as how to add animations and sounds to presentations. I also try to persuade you to think about your worklife in general, such as when I offer techniques to assuage an itchy, e-mailing trigger finger. As well, if you're a regular reader of this column, you know that I've covered how to deal with spam, what constitutes appropriate e-mail etiquette, and even how to plan your time away from work so that you don't come back to a big mess waiting for you.

This week's column is a bit different, and as I write it, I imagine that my editors will be scratching their heads, sharpening their red pencils, and wondering what to do with it when it hits their desks. However, the idea of diversity has been on my mind lately, and I've been known to step out of the realm of Microsoft Office (and even productivity in general).

And so, I'm willing to take this leap of faith this week with you, my readers (and with my editors), in order to tiptoe a bit outside our comfort zones (not that the issues of spam and rude coworkers are comfortable or even pleasant ones). My goal is to give you some things to think about regarding your workplace, your attitudes, and even the way your company — whether you're an employee or an employer — addresses the issues of variety and diversity in the workplace.

What is diversity?

According to MSN Encarta Dictionary, the word diversity can mean many things:

  1. Variety  A variety of something such as opinion, color, or style
  2. Social inclusiveness  Ethnic variety, as well as socioeconomic and gender variety, in a group, society, or institution
  3. Discrepancy  Discrepancy, or a difference from what is normal or expected

For the purpose of this column, we're going to explore definition number two, which gets into inclusiveness and variety in institutions, which, in our case, means your workplace.

First let me explain what I mean when I say "diverse" by identifying some of the people that you're likely to encounter (or should be encountering) in the workplace as well as the world outside your company's office doors. While you may think that hiring for a diverse environment means hiring people who are members of minority groups, it goes way beyond that. In this column, when I mention diversity, I'm talking about:

  • Yes, people of all races.
  • People from all different countries.
  • People of all ages.
  • People with varying educational backgrounds.
  • People with different communication styles.
  • Both women and men.
  • People with a variety of sexual preferences and gender identifications.
  • People who are blind or who have some sort of sight disability.
  • People who are deaf or who have some level of hearing impairment.
  • People with mobility issues, such as those in wheelchairs or who use a cane or a walker.
  • People with learning disabilities.

 Note   A while back I wrote a column about accessibility features in Office. That column was about how you, as software designers, can make your programs more accessible to your customers as well as how we, at Microsoft, make our programs more accessible to you. This means making things easier to see on screen and easier to access with the mouse and keyboard. Yes, accessibility is a subset of diversity, but it certainly isn't the whole story.

The benefits of diversity outside the workplace

Before I get into why diversity in the workplace is so important, first let's talk about food and money, two of my favorite subjects.

One of my simple (if expensive) pleasures in life is sushi. When an expert sushi chef prepares, just for me, a plate of colorful, multi-shaped — and yes, sometimes even challenging — sashimi, nigiri, or temaki rolls, all made with fish from all over the world, that variety of taste, configuration, and presentation is what makes me a contented eater.

Now, you may not be a sushi lover. Maybe you're a fiend for those wonderful black-and-white cookies; or perhaps it's one of those sweet-and-sour dishes that do it for you.

My points are:

  • Sure, variety is the spice of life ... but it's also good for us. We know that eating too much of the same thing day after day will just not ensure a healthy body or mind. Uniformity isn't only boring — it's just not good for you. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture's food pyramid — the one that seems to be constantly revamped to actually include more types of food — also recognizes this.)
  • Each of us brings different values, experiences, flavors, and preferences to the table. And in doing so, we can have an interesting lunch together.

Now onto the money talk. Diversifying your stock portfolio (and wherever else your money lies) is recommended by financial advisors. While I'm not a money person (nor do I play one on the Web), I do know that dividing your money and your investments among a variety of assets reduces risk and can improve the performance of your investments. In other words, spreading your money around a bit will help you ensure that it's working for you.

The same holds true for our societies and our working environments. Recognizing — not to mention employing — people of all shapes, colors, sizes, and levels of sensory abilities as potential contributing individuals to the group makes for a workplace that is interesting, multi-capable, and ... diverse.

The benefits of diversity inside the workplace

Maybe you enjoyed my little spiel about the value of diversifying your palate as well as your money. But perhaps you're not really getting what this has to do with diversity in the workplace.

Without getting into too much detail, and without sounding too smarmy (by smooching the hand that feeds my family and me) I do need to say that I feel privileged to work for a company that employs people from all over the world, and whose definition of diversity extends beyond race, national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. Microsoft strives to recognize that all people have something unique to bring to the table. Consequently, this company spends time, money, and effort to educate its entire workforce about what it means to respect the various differences among coworkers and acknowledge when we're falling short of that consideration.

“Giving all people the opportunity to do their best work in an environment that respects them just makes sense. You, as an employer, won't ever know what talents you're missing out on unless you give everyone a chance.”

Your world at work is a microcosm of society. Yes, you are still you at work, but you probably recognize that it's a different you than the one at home, with your spouse or partner, on a date, with your kids, with your in-laws, or at a party. But, still, you are you, and YOU are carrying all your baggage around with you.

I'm going to be really clear here: If you have a bent toward racism or sexism, if someone who may have limited eyesight, hearing, or mobility makes you uncomfortable, or if you have negative feelings about the sexual orientations and lifestyle preferences of your coworkers, you won't be able to hide those feelings — at least not for long. The way you conduct yourself — inside and outside the workplace — is a reflection of who you are as a person. We don't live in a one-size-fits-all society, and we shouldn't work in one, either. Of course, as an employer, it can only benefit you to have people representing all aspects of society helping build products that serve everyone out there in the market.

And that is really the message, short and sweet, of this column. I hope I've given you at least a broad idea of why diversity in your workplace is crucial to the health and satisfaction of your employees as well as your customers. People love to use the phrase "global marketplace," but if you really want to put your money where your mouth is, consider implementing a variety of diversity programs in your company. Some ideas:

  • Require everyone to take a diversity training course, perhaps designed by someone in Human Resources. This will enable all employees who work for the company to understand the reasons why diversity is so important to it.
  • Set aside one day each year as "Work Without Your Mouse Day" so that employees can get a better idea of what it's like to not be able to use the mouse, to have to reply on the keyboard or other types of assistive products.
  • Ask employees who add to the diversity of your organization to give an informal talk about what it's like to sometimes feel different from everyone else, and how other employees can help reduce those feelings.

More information about diversity in the workplace

More information about diversity at Microsoft

Because I've used Microsoft as an example of a big, successful company with a highly diverse workforce, I want to point you to some more Microsoft resources that will help you understand why diversity in the workplace can only serve to make your company and its working environment the best it can be.

Feeling safe about who you are in your working environment can only serve to make you better at what you do — more productive, efficient, and, frankly, happy. And if you don't fall into one of these diverse groups that I listed earlier in this column, working in a diverse working environment will teach you to better respect all people, no matter their gender, age, religion, race, class, sexual orientation, or disability.

"Accomplishments have no color." — Leontyne Price

About the author

Annik Stahl, the Crabby Office Lady columnist, takes all of your complaints, compliments, and knee-jerk reactions to heart. Therefore, she graciously asks that you let her know whether this column was useful to you — or not — by entering your feedback using the Did this article help you? feedback tool below. And remember: If you don't vote, you can't complain.

Crabby Office Lady columns
Crabby’s blog
Crabby’s podcasts