Capacity for Empathy: Confronting Discrimination in Managing Multicultural Work Force Diversity

By King, Albert S. | Business Communication Quarterly, December 1995 | Go to article overview

Capacity for Empathy: Confronting Discrimination in Managing Multicultural Work Force Diversity


King, Albert S., Business Communication Quarterly


This commentary focuses exclusively on problems of discrimination as a major obstruction in managing diversity and incorporates an experiential training exercise for confronting discrimination to better understand the difficulties in "going beyond equality" in managing diversity. The exercise communicates the needed capacity for empathy or ability to cope with the emotional reactions of unequal treatment that inevitably occur when socially or ethnically different people work together in organizations. The exercise and results of a recent field study reported herein focus on traditional forms of black and white discrimination. However, the procedure and instrument are general and may be modified to fit unique situations.

It is no big secret that EEO is quickly diversifying the approaching Workforce 2000 (Hillary, 1990; Jamieson & O'Mara, 1991) as more and more women, immigrants, and minorities enter corporate America. But simply bringing different people together does not create a productive work environment or even a genuinely diverse one. Productivity, responsiveness, and a unified organizational direction may all decline unless diversity is deliberately managed - and managed well (Kessler, 1990). The problem is that many have not yet learned how to effectively deal with people who are different from themselves (Copeland, 1988). Some organizations have a tendency to embrace the melting-pot theory, where dominant majorities denigrate minority cultures and require them to adopt different practices. Others build bureaucratic structures along with glass ceilings that force the unique to reside on the bottom. Knowing it is just as bad to ignore differences (not managing diversity) as it is to emphasize them (not managing Equal Employment Opportunity), training organizations are strongly questioning if either the melting pot or unique approaches will ever be viable in achieving that paradoxical corporate goal - unity in diversity (Fernandez, 1991).

Why cannot work organizations replace the melting pot with a salad bowl, in which everyone's culture, color, and creed are preserved? Why do not managers tear down bureaucratic structures and replace them with organic democratic ones, where the organization is capable of seizing the benefits the wide variability in human behavior brings (Bacas, 1988)? These questions can be answered with one word - discrimination (King, 1992).

Problems of Discrimination and Diversity

Although employment discrimination is illegal and poorly discussed, it is commonly practiced throughout the United States. More than 130,000 formal complaints are currently filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Homer, 1992). A great percentage of that number is related to discrimination. Discrimination is alive and lurks throughout America - in our schools, in our government, in our businesses. The "managing diversity" movement's excellent strides in going beyond equality notwithstanding, discrimination remains (Jamieson, 1992; Thomas, 1991). Invidious conduct such as blatant discrimination is easily identified. However, discrimination comes in subtle and ineffably different forms of behavior and attitude (King, 1993). While overt discriminatory behaviors are painful, prejudicial attitudes also cause a great deal of pain. This pain, entangled with anger and frustration, can lead to high turnover and low productivity in the workplace.

Being blind to differences is not the aim. As Price Cobbs, co-author of Black Rage puts it, "When people say, I don't even notice you are black, what they are really saying is you have overcome the handicaps or I don't value the difference ... I see you as just like me" (p. 14). Deemphasizing differences and pretending to transform "we are all equal" into meaning "we are all the same" is a signal of failure to manage diversity and falls short of the mark of affective empathy in facing discrimination (Goodchilds, 1991). And too, many people managing diversity training programs fail to communicate the capacity for empathy because their focus is almost entirely intellectual or cognitive. …

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Capacity for Empathy: Confronting Discrimination in Managing Multicultural Work Force Diversity
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