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"laura field" <llfield@ilstu.edur> Review: CAREERS, COLLEAGUES, AND CONFLICTS

Date: Sun, 30 Apr 1995 13:33:47 -0500 
From: "laura field" <llfield@ilstu.edu> 


Reviewed by:
Laura Field
Illinois State University
April 30, 1995

Historically, organizations have attempted to assimilate everyone into the American way of doing things. But the greater the number of differences between people, the more difficult this process can become. In fact, there are few organizations that are immune to the problems that result from the interaction between the sexes, among the races, and the generations. Armand Lauffer, author and sociologist, explores some of the issues related to culture, ethnicity, personality, and conflict in the workplace. He addresses these issues by interviewing a diverse group of professionals that work for a social service agency. But in an effort to provide anonymity, he has changed the names of the employees and the name of the agency. Yet this does not disguise the dimensions of diversity that exists, or the effect that diversity has on human relations in the workplace. To begin, Lauffer introduces some of the employees at the "All Families Service Center" that include Yolanda, Sam, and Carl.

Yolanda, an African American woman, received her graduate degree in social work. Although she enjoys her job, she expresses how it has not always been easy. She revealed that to integrate properly into the agency, she had to compromise her cultural-self. In other words, she consciously had to change her behavior, to fit in with her white colleagues. Furthermore, she confessed how conservative her mannerisms, hairstyle, and clothing had become. This was another deliberate effort to fit in with everyone else. Sam, at the age of 19, had left his native country of Lebanon because of civil strife. But he never wavered commitment to his countrymen. He decided early to seek a career opportunity that would enable him to be of service to his people and others in the Chaldean community. As a social worker, Sam's primary goal was to get the "New Americans Project" accepted. This project would allow the hiring of the Arab and Southeast Asian community members to counsel other new arrivals. But when he proposed the project it was refused by his colleagues. His coworkers asserted that they did not believe these people would be experienced or professional enough to counsel. Sam explained how he felt personally attacked by his colleagues; and this made him defensive about his ideas and his people. Although he admitted there had always been some misunderstanding about the project, he did not expect to receive such harsh opposition. Carl, the agency's accountant, is described as somewhat of an outsider. Mainly because he is the only person in the agency who is not a social worker. Yet,there are other reasons as well. Carl does his work competently, but without enthusiasm. He doesn't like to fight and avoids conflict and people in general. He uses his wry sense of humor to keep everyone at a distance. But all of this leaves Carl feeling socially isolated. A combination of all these factors has led Carl to feel often depressed, unproductive, and misplaced in the organization. He complains that his energy at work is often low, and further expresses how he cannot seem to keep the upbeat attitude like the other staff members. To further add to his problems, Carl states that "I respect Yolanda, but I have problems with the female-male relationship and the black-white thing" (13). His overall fear of becoming too close to anyone, has led Carl to be isolated from everyone.

Lauffer suggests that the greater number of differences between people, the more difficult it is to establish trust and mutual respect. Differences are described as either primary or secondary dimensions of diversity. These dimensions are characteristics that describe people. The primary dimensions are those core elements about each individual and include: age, gender, race, physical traits, and sexual orientation. Together they form an individual's self-image and the filters through which he or she views the rest of the world.These inborn elements are interdependent, and represent the core of our identities.

It is further suggested that minorities in many areas of professional employment often find themselves caught between competing identities. As they enter new worlds they face a collision of values, and contradictions in life-styles.  This often pulls them away from their cultural or ethnic identities. For example, when Yolanda felt forced to comprimise her cultural-self, she also found herself alone, unhappy, and seperated both from her black friends and from her white colleagues. Sam, in defense of himself and his culture, felt that the other staff members did not understand or appreciate the uniqueness of his culture. Because Yolanda and Sam felt that they were not being totally accepted, they were unable to fully accept the other staff members. Lauffer suggests that this type of situation occurs often in organizational settings, and can undermine any attempts of establishing a cohesive work group.

The secondary dimensions of diversity are described as those elements that can be changed or at least modified. They include a person's communication style, education, relationship/marital status, religious beliefs, and income. These factors all add an additional layer of complexity to the way we see ourselves and others. It is suggested that these secondary dimensions can even exert a powerful impact on our core identities. For example, Carl's negative attitude about others in the agency began to negatively effect his motivation, productivity, and even his self-esteem. The complex nature of these diverse dimensions are described as those factors which make each of us different from one another. Everyone enters the work force with a unique perspective shaped by these dimensions and experiences. Thus, effective human relations with diverse people can only occur when we are able to accept and value the differences in others, Without this acceptance, both the primary and secondary dimensions of diversity will serve as roadblocks to further cooperation and understanding. Lauffer describes how differences in primary and secondary dimensions can often lead to subtle discrimination. Subtle discrimination is difficult to prove, however, because employers are often unaware of their own predjudices. For instance, many employers subconsciously associate height with assertiveness, self-confidence, and an "executive" image. Employers may also have their own set of standards for who is and is not acceptable. Those who are from another region of the country, who speak with an accent, or possess some other characteristic that marks them "different" may find themselves victims of discrimination. Thus, for employees like Yolanda, Sam, and Carl, they can either change some of their "differences" to blend in better with other in the organization; work to increase their skills and their value to the organization, or; investigate other organizations where management may be more open to diversity.

Lauffer presents a thorough analysis of how to identify, respect, and enhance individual differences in the workplace. However, he neglects in his assessment the importance of the "bigger picture". That is, the economics of valuing diversity. Lauffer looks at valuing diversity as a legal, social, and moral issue. But valuing diversity is also an economic issue because an organization's most valuable resource is its people.Many organizations are still attempting to win the competitive race by using only part of their human resources. But development and utilization of a talented, diverse work force could be the key to being competitive in today's global economy.

Additionally, Lauffer fails to discuss the enormous amount of talent and time being consumed in either perpetuating or fighting the injustices of unfair discrimination in organizations that favor sameness. The enornous amount of energy that is spent learning how to assimilate (or resist assimilation) could be better spent on improving product quality or improving customer service. Lauffer does provide an interesting look at some of the issues relating to culture, ethnicity, and personality in the workplace. However, he fails to include the huge price for not helping employees learn to respect and value each other. Specifically, organizations can succeed only when they have an environment that enables all employees,not just a few, to work to their full potential.

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