A multicultural organization is defined as one that seeks and values all differences and develops systems and work practices that support the success and inclusion of members of every group. Multicultural organizations are characterized by equality, justice, and full participation at both the group level and the individual level. In multicultural organizations, differences of all types are not merely tolerated; they are actually sought out because their inclusion offers critical opportunities for improvement and enhanced outcomes for organizations, including increased profitability, learning, creativity, flexibility, adaptation to change, and organizational growth.
Leaders in contemporary organizations are paying attention to multiculturalism for a number of reasons. Two converging factors in particular are contributing to organizational interest in multiculturalism. First, organizations are increasingly the locations of diversity across a broad spectrum: People of different races, genders, educational levels, sexual orientations, socioeconomic status, religious affiliations, and any number of dimensions of diversity are coming together at work. To effectively manage and leverage this diverse workforce, organizations must pay attention to the environment being created for the workforce.
A second important factor is that organizations are operating in a context of constant change: Advances in technology, rapidly changing customer bases, and dramatic policy shifts and legal challenges all affect organizations. Both factors require organizational leaders to consider the importance of building multicultural organizations.
Scholars who study and write about multicultural organizations acknowledge that only a small number of organizations are truly multicultural. In contrast to multicultural organizations, most organizations fall into one of two other categories: monolithic or plural. Monolithic organizations are typically very homogeneous and are characterized by substantial numbers of White males, who make up the majority in the overall employee population; few women or people of color in management positions; high levels of occupational segregation; high levels of discrimination and prejudice; and an explicit valuing of one dominant group, culture, or style to the exclusion of other minority groups. The plural organization differs from the monolithic one in several important ways. Plural organizations are characterized by a more heterogeneous workforce, policies and practices that are more inclusive of people who are not part of the dominant group, greater integration of minority group members into informal networks, and reductions in discrimination and prejudicial attitudes. Plural and monolithic organizations share these criteria: (a) Both are characterized by skewed integration of minorities across functions, levels, and work groups; and (b) both assume that those who are different will assimilate to fit into the dominant culture.
Organizations move from being monolithic to multicultural by paying attention to change in very concrete ways and at several levels. Much of the work on multicultural organizations focuses on change in three particular ways: structural change, cultural change, and behavioral change. Structural change focuses on the formal systems that guide and control the work of the organization. Proponents of structural change are paying attention to recruitment, advancement, retention, career development, and attention to other policies and/or procedures, such as benefits, flexible work schedules, compressed workweeks, and job sharing and job rotation. Cultural change is concerned with basic assumptions, values, beliefs, and ideologies that define an organization’s view of itself. Proponents of cultural change guide the organization by encouraging an environment that welcomes a wide range of work styles and behaviors and embraces diversity in thought, practice, and action. Behavioral change is dedicated to altering behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions (at the individual and work group levels) that hinder the goals of diversity. Proponents of behavioral change challenge the organization to surface intentional and unintentional consequences of actions that differentially and negatively impact minority group members. Each of the three forms of change is important in moving an organization from monolithic to multicultural; using them in conjunction with one another provides a powerful mechanism for leveraging several different interventions.
Multicultural organizations use a number of different interventions to support their employees. Common interventions include managing/valuing diversity training, orientation programs for new members, targeted career development programs, mentoring programs, focus groups, task forces, performance appraisal and reward systems that consider diversity, and company-sponsored social events. There is a temptation to pick and choose from among these many different interventions at random. But multicultural organizations determine which interventions to use and when to use them through a strategic and proactive planning process, often consisting of the following five steps:
- laying the groundwork and securing organizational leadership for intervention;
- assessing organizational needs related to diversity;
- developing and communicating a vision, goals, and strategic plan;
- implementing selected interventions; and
- monitoring and evaluating progress and results.
Each step is important in preparing an organization to shoulder the complex and intensive work involved in supporting multiculturalism.
Although it is no small feat for an organization to become multicultural, it is nonetheless a worthy endeavor. In light of the rapidly changing nature of work in the twenty-first century, multicultural organizations provide a competitive edge over organizations that remain monolithic and plural in nature: the ability to provide a forum to fully support and draw from all of their human resources.
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