Cultural Diversity in the Workplace: The State of the Field

Article excerpt

The challenge posed by the increasing cultural diversity of the U.S. workforce is perhaps the most pressing challenge of our times. Scholarship on this increasing diversity has produced general overviews on diversity and related issues, essays that offer a theoretical perspective and suggest research directions for studying diversity in organizations, and few actual research studies of diversity in organizations. The research studies that have been done examine differences in organizational communication in different (particularly national) cultures, examine organizational communication in multicultural contexts, and explore cultural voices in the workplace.

Researchers of cultural diversity in organizations must look to alternative theoretical perspectives, such as feminist theories, critical theories, and sociological paradigms to identify the problematics and methodologies appropriate to future diversity studies. This research needs to document different voices in the workforce, especially those that have been marginalized.

Multicultural discourses that incorporate the diverse voices of all workers will not only transform our public and private economic organizations, they will also reinvigorate our public discourses and political institutions, strengthening our social, political, and economic well-being. There have been numerous challenges issued to academics to become more involved in the pressing social issues of the day and to demonstrate, in the public arena, the worth of their studies. The study of cultural diversity and of multicultural discourses in organizations offers an opportunity for scholars to do that.

Cultural diversity in the workplace is currently a hot topic. Only ten years ago, virtually no books were available on the topic, and journal articles were just as rare.(1) Today, hardly a day goes by that a national newspaper or magazine doesn't run a story on some aspect of the increasing diversity of the U.S. workforce, such as the changing demographics of the U.S. population, immigration policy, and the debate over affirmative action programs. Diversity also seems ubiquitous in academic circles. During the last few years, numerous books on workforce diversity have been published (see, for example, Cox, 1993; Fernandez, 1991; Fine, 1995; Loden & Rosener, 1991); the 1992 Academy of Management Annual Meeting was devoted to the topic of "the management of diversity"; video training tapes have been produced for use in college classrooms and organizational training programs; and journal articles have begun appearing in both the management and communication literatures. For example, within the last two years, in addition to this special issue of The Journal of Business Communication, the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, the Journal of Applied Behavioral Sciences, the Journal of Organizational Change Management, and the Academy of Management Review have each published volumes devoted to diversity in the workplace.

Despite this spate of attention to the subject, the research literature remains sparse and our knowledge about diversity, especially in organizational life, has increased little. In a 1991 article in The Journal of Business Communication, I offered a theoretical perspective on understanding diversity and suggested possible research directions for studying diversity in the workplace. Four years later, Allen (1995) concluded, in an essay published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, that virtually no research on diversity in the workplace has been done. In this essay, I review the current strands of research on cultural diversity in the workplace, offer an explanation for the paucity of research on the topic, and suggest topics and methods for future research.

Scholarship on Cultural Diversity in the Workplace

Scholarship on cultural diversity in the workplace falls into three broad categories: (a) general overviews of diversity and related issues, (b) essays that offer a theoretical perspective and suggest research directions for studying diversity in organizations, and (c) research studies specifically on diversity in organizations. …