Teach Workers to Celebrate Diversity on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. According to BLR’s 2015 Holiday Practices Survey, 32.6% of employers provide Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a paid holiday. According to the survey, this percentage has grown slightly over the past few years (30.1% of employers offered it as a paid holiday in the 2012 survey).

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Regardless of your organization’s pay practices, this holiday is a great time to celebrate diversity in your workplace. Help employees learn to respect each other’s differences so they can understand each other, communicate effectively, and work together productively.

Discuss the different ways employees can be diverse, for example:

  • By race—but keep in mind that members of the same race can be very different from one another;
  • By gender—gender differences are particularly noticeable in jobs that traditionally have been all male or all female, but now increasingly include both sexes;
  • By physical appearance—such as height, weight, and hair color;
  • By age—age and generational differences are likely to be more noticeable as the number of older Americans in the workforce increases;
  • By education—educational differences can affect the way different people approach the same job;
  • By cultural background—this may reflect race or country of origin, but it may also reflect how we celebrate different holidays or what language is spoken at home; and
  • By physical abilities—these take into account both special talents and special needs, including physical disabilities.

There’s no doubt that diversity can lead to challenges in the workplace, so make these points with your employees:

  • Differences among people are OK. Keep in mind that being “different” doesn’t mean “better” or “worse”—it just means “different.”
  • Coordinating different styles of working can be challenging because not everyone approaches a task in exactly the same way.
  • Learning to communicate across cultural and language differences can also present difficulties. Clear and open communication is essential to working successfully in a diverse group.
  • Developing flexibility is another important ingredient to dealing with diversity. It’s important not only to listen to new ideas, but also to implement different approaches.
  • Finally, be willing to adapt to change. This includes both changes in the workforce itself and changes in the way we approach our daily tasks.

Diversity also brings positive opportunities. Discuss the following points with your employees:

  • A diverse workplace helps attract and retain high-quality people from a variety of backgrounds.
  • Morale increases when everyone feels that he or she is welcome and appreciated, regardless of background.
  • Productivity improves as morale increases.
  • Accepting and encouraging diversity reduces discrimination and the risk of lawsuits.
  • Decision making is improved when there is a diversity of approaches present in the workplace.
  • Our organization’s profile and reputation in the marketplace improves when our workplace becomes known for encouraging diversity and treating all employees fairly.

Finally, give your employees practical steps for working safely and effectively in your diverse workforce. For example:

  1. Learn co-workers’ names and use them.
  2. Don’t make assumptions about co-workers.
  3. Treat male and female co-workers equally.
  4. Avoid sexist comments and remarks.
  5. Don’t make assumptions about the personal identity or affiliation of any individual.
  6. Take advantage of life experiences and share them.
  7. Respect differences.
  8. Understand how a physically challenged person wants to contribute to the team. Don’t assume that a disability limits participation.
  9. Do not condone tasteless jokes or comments.
  10. Think inclusive, not exclusive.

Why It Matters

  • In today’s American workforce, nearly one-third of workers are minorities, nearly one-half are women, and more than 10 percent are aged 55 or older—so it’s already relatively diverse.
  • By the year 2020, the percentage of minorities in the workforce is projected to increase by more than 40 percent, and the percentage of older workers is expected to go up as well.
  • By the year 2050, nearly half of workers are expected to be minorities, and the percentage of workers over the age of 55 will increase to almost 20 percent.