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Managing the diversity at workplace has become an important area of concern among organizations in the United Arab Emirates today. The net migration rate in the UAE is one of the largest in the world. Moreover, the number of workers from India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, the USA, etc. has increased significantly in recent decades. This cross-border mobility of UAE has led to interaction between people having diverse language, culture and ethnic backgrounds. Although it has been stated that diversity is advantageous and has a number of benefits, including increase in employee's creativity and competence, but this is often a case more in theory than in actual practice. Diversity also has ill-effects like miscommunication or misunderstandings, dysfunctional adaptation behaviors and the creation of barriers which can limit the benefits it can bring to the organization. With reference to the nature of the UAE workplace, specifically aviation industry; and the workforce which is dominated considerably by foreign class of people, this paper tends to critically analyze the benefits and the challenges organizations face in such diverse workplaces. It is an attempt to study the theories, concepts and tools evolved by different communication scholars over time and analyze and compare them in context to aviation major Air Arabia.
In today's globalized world, corporations, whether located at one place or more, have their operations in some or the other way, spread across the globe. When people from different backgrounds work hand-in-hand to achieve the organizational goals, they bring in different kinds of skills and expertise they have acquired from their culture, which in turn increases the efficiency, productivity and profitability of the company, and as a result, inter-cultural communication has become a necessity in most work environments. The workforce is said to be diverse when employees belong to different races and ethnicities, social and cultural background, caste and creed, age, gender, religion, etc. Managing such diverse workforce is a really very important function performed by the HR manager of any company, and the rise or fall of such organizations depends on how effectively its workforce is managed because diversity does not bring in only advantages; it can also cause serious problems in an organization, like communication problems and intercultural conflicts, thereby resulting in impeding the smooth flow of business (Al-Jenaibi, Winter 2011).
Diversity management is a necessity in the Arabian Gulf, and more specifically, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), because it is the region which is most exposed to the international mobility of labor. A large part of the workforce here composes of foreign citizens. As a result, the companies have to understand and create a work environment of international standards, which would satisfy residents as well as non-residents working in the same workplace. In the UAE, expatriates form 90% of its entire population which includes residents from South Asia, China, Thailand, Philippines, Iran, northern Africa, and Western countries. This ethnic diversity may be attributed to the fact that the net migration rates of the UAE in the world is among the highest.
With reference to the nature of the UAE workplace, specifically aviation industry; and the workforce which is dominated considerably by foreign class of people, this paper tends to critically analyze the benefits and the challenges organizations face in such diverse workplaces. It is an attempt to study the theories, concepts and tools evolved by different communication scholars over time and analyze and compare them in context to aviation major Air Arabia.
About Air Arabia
In the Middle East, Air Arabia is the first and largest low-cost airline. It was established by Dr. Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah and member of the Supreme Council of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), by issuance of an Amiri decree on 3rd February, 2003. The operations of the airline started on 28th October, 2003 when its first flight flew from Sharjah, UAE to Bahrain International Airport. With its headquarters in the Sharjah Airport Freight Center, on the property of Sharjah International Airport, Sharjah (UAE), it operates its scheduled services to 46 destinations from Sharjah in 22 countries, which includes the Middle East, North Africa, Indian subcontinent, Central Asia and Europe, 11 destinations in 10 countries from Casablanca and 5 destinations in 5 countries from Alexandria. It functions as a low cost conduit base from its main base, i.e. Sharjah International Airport. Although there are many other low cost airlines operating, but Air Arabia separates itself from the point that it offers connections to many flights at its base in Sharjah and has focus cities in Alexandria and Casablanca. Moreover, Air Arabia is a member of the Arab Air Carriers Organization. The airline has witnessed profits and growth since the very first year of its business. In early 2007, it had brought its successful Initial Public Offering (IPO) for 55% of its stock. (Air Arabia)
We know well that a business is successful only when it has a capable as well as a satisfied team. Air Arabia attracts aviation industry's some of the best talents because of its innovative techniques, comfortable work environment and growth chart. It provides employment to more than 1,400 employees worldwide and this number grows yearly as the group grows. It has also been awarded as the best managed airline in the Middle East (AirArabia.com).
Diversity Management at Air Arabia
Airline industry is an industry which undoubtedly operates worldwide. It has employees from diverse backgrounds and belonging to different cultures, working together for accomplishment of organizational goals. Diversity management is a necessity in such industry, because without it, the company shall land itself in conflicting situations. However, it has been observed and reported by different sources that the management in Air Arabia do not handle the workforce diversity very effectively, and as a result some groups of people are dissatisfied.
In order to manage the workforce diversity, the company adopted the equal treatment strategy, under which, each of the employees is treated equally irrespective of their caste, color, race, language, gender, religion, skills, etc. When we have to manage such diverse workforce and cultural differences between them, anyone and everyone would believe the strategy to be perfect; but in reality it did not prove to be flawless and completely helpful in a country like Dubai. Dubai is a country in which people belonging to different religions and castes, speaking different languages and having different educational and mental aptitude levels, live. Some prefer the equality approach, while some do not. For example, UAE natives have low proficiency in English because it is their culture that teaches them to give emphasis on Urdu, and not on English. Consequently, they are mostly underrated and underestimated than few foreign classes of employee, like Indian workforce, who are more fluent in English, thereby introducing a sense of unhappiness and dissatisfaction towards the job. (Air Arabia exhibits problem of workforce management due to workforce diversity). In case the equality approach is not followed, i.e. discrimination is on the basis of caste and religion, the foreign pool of people would not like to work with the nationals and as a result there would be conflicting situations in the organizations. This and many more similar problems arise in case of diversity management in Air Arabia.
In recent years, drastic changes have taken place in the world market, which has altered the way people look at the organizations and interact within them. Globalization has created juxtapositions, for example, an Arabian employee (belonging to Gulf countries) could work in an American company and interact with an Indian colleague. Today, an organization is not merely a workplace; rather they are the mini-societies having their own different patterns of culture and sub-culture. Employees from diverse backgrounds work together, interact, and in a word we can say, share each other's life for some time, in an organization. Hence, employees in so called "societies" are not only required to do just their work, but also to know inter-cultural communication, i.e. communication across languages and cultures. Varied research has already been done in this context and a lot still going on. Researchers studying organizations and the factors influencing its efficiency have started focusing more closely toward definitions, theories, concepts and importance of culture and diversity in workplace, and application of a cultural approach to organizational communication.
Culture is related to past, to history. Our great forefathers thought of some common thing, believed in it and they all practiced it generations after generations, which gradually formed our culture. It, in one sense, refers to the product of many years of civilization of people, which had initially evolved from the minds and creativity of a group of people who had a common heritage, and then grown gradually. Culture has also been described as the totality of those facts and acts which are shared by a relatively large group of people. LeBaron states that culture is something related to values, manners, principles and practices that are accepted by a group generally without much thinking, and that are passed on from one generation to another by communication and imitation. (LeBaron, 2011)
Diversity means different. The concept is closely related to that of culture. Culture was adopted by our forefathers, or groups of people generations back. These people or groups were quite different from one another, in terms of many demographic variables, including, but not just limited to, race, ethnicity, religion, caste, color, creed, gender, national origin, disability, gender, age, education, geographic origin, and skills. Workforce diversity, therefore, refers to the similarities and differences among employees in terms of these variables. (Service, 2010)
A group of people is identified by their culture, which they receive and adopt from previous generations, completely or partially. This cultural identity includes their level of knowledge, values, beliefs, practices, attitudes, hierarchies, religion, roles, spatial relations, material objects and property obtained by them in the course of generations. However, this cultural identity does not remain the same generation after generation. Due to various influences, cultural differences arise among individuals over time. Thus, we can say, man or group today is not exactly a replicate of its previous generation and moreover, a person in a group is different from another in the same group within the same generation. Varadaraja opines that the influences either act in the early stages of one's culture formation, or that it arises later in life as a result of education, reading, travelling, etc. (Varadaraja, 2010). We know about a particular person's or groups' culture through symbols used by them, rituals performed by them, heroes worshipped by them, and values held by them. Elaine states that to some extent, communication is the verbal form of our culture and culture is the origin of our communication. (Elaine, 2011)
With the advent of globalization, operations as well as people have become mobile and as a result, people of different origin come together to serve the same purpose. This diversity in workplace is inevitable, and it has advantages as well. When people from diverse background join hands to serve one common purpose, they bring in different kinds of skills and expertise they have acquired from their culture, which in turn increases the efficiency, productivity and profitability of the company. But diversity does not bring in only advantages; it can also cause serious problems in an organization, like communication problems and intercultural conflicts, thereby resulting in impeding the smooth flow of business. As a result, in today's globalized world, diversity is one of the inevitable contemporary challenges that organizations face. (Peltokorpi, 2010).
People belonging to diverse backgrounds and cultures interact daily in an organization. They share new ideas and creative approaches to problem solving with each other for the benefit of the organization as a whole; but there are cultural differences among them, which, if not dealt properly, might, at times, spark conflicting situations as each one works within the boundaries of its deep-rooted culture. As a result, it creates challenges to the organization and hampers the entire work environment.
In order to fight the challenges arising from cultural differences, the Human Resource (HR) manager has to play a really important role. Some basic steps involved in effective communication within an organization includes understanding the existing pattern of organizational communication, understanding each and every person working in an organization and their very culture, analyzing the variations and depicting the problems that can occur, interpreting the communication differences in productive ways, and innovating improved channels of communication for employees to understand and respect each other's culture and do healthy communication within a business community. (M. E. Pacanowsky, 1983)
LeBaron has said that there is no comprehensive way to understand culture and its interrelationship with communication and conflict; however, there are different models, theories and tools suggested by anthropologists and scholars to help the managers in categorizing cultural differences, the conflicting situations which can arise out of it and practices to avoid such conflicts. He discussed one tool to deal with the concepts of high-context and low-context communication. High-context communication refers to the high level of trust which a speaker has on the factors other than the clear communication or explicit speech given to convey the message. On the contrary, low-context communication refers to the low level of confidence a speaker has on the other factors, and a high level of trust only on the explicit speech to convey the message (E. Würtz, 2005). To this, Hall added that degree of field dependence, i.e. the degree to which the factors or the things outside the explicit communication, affects the meaning of the communication; influences communication, and it can be categorized into two - high-context and low-context field dependence. Moreover, it is not just related to individual communication strategies, but may be used to understand group communication (Hall, 1971). He opined that generally, people belonging to the Western cultures are more inclined towards low-context communication, while those belonging to Eastern and Southern cultures tend to begin from high-context points. But again the limitation stands that behavior of one person cannot be applicable on the behavior of the other person or the entire group, and moreover, the cultural behavior is dynamic in nature and thus keeps changing from time to time.
With reference to a study conducted by Cox, Elmaddsia states that there are four methods of acculturation, i.e. adoption of the behavior patterns seen in the surrounding culture or the process of assimilating new ideas into an existing cognitive structure. The methods are - assimilation, separation, deculturation and pluralism. First one is assimilation, which is a one-way process of adaptation, i.e. employees from different backgrounds come to see themselves as part of a larger national family, the company. They adapt to the culture of the company, and all other cultures are absorbed within it and then the different minority cultures are eliminated in order to meet the needs of the dominant culture. Second method is separation, i.e. the social act of separating or parting and limiting the exchanges between diverse groups from a cultural and technical perspective. The third one is deculturation, under which there is no preferred culture, i.e. no culture dominates over others. As a result, the cultural differences are diminished and the emphasis is on grouping of people together to avoid misunderstandings. The last one is pluralism, i.e. the method in which employees hold more than one culture at a time. They combine several basic substances or positive aspects from each minority culture to form their perception and each one gains from the other. In such a kind of work environment, equality exists and differences due to different cultures are expressed, appreciated and positives learned. Therefore, according to Cox, pluralism can ensure success for multinational corporations.
Why is Management of Diversity important?
The workplace today is full of people from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities. To serve one common purpose, they need to communicate with each other daily. In order to reconcile or reduce the differences between such employees or between employees and the management, without causing too much friction in day-to-day interactions, management of the diversities based on their ethnicity or gender is important, as otherwise there is a possibility of the organizational performance getting hit and worse than that, lawsuits and legal tangles from the harassed, discriminated or somehow aggrieved employees (Managing Workforce Diversity).
Fair vs. Same Treatment
'Fair' and 'same' are often read as having same meaning, and as a result, many people believe that fairness means treating everyone the same, however it is not so. 'Fair' means just and 'same' means equal. Hence, fair treatment means treating properly, i.e. in a way one deserves to be, but same treatment means treating in exactly the same manner. Same treatment cannot work for a diverse staff, whereas fair treatment does. For example, there may be employees who have low proficiency skills in English language. This might not affect their ability to do their regular jobs, but if the management treats everybody the same, and distributes some complicated memos or circulars, this might not be an effective way of communicating with them. The important information might be missed out by or the message might get corrupted for that particular group of people and hence they might feel discriminated. The alternative in this case should have been giving the information in a simpler language to them or to all, or better to give them extra time to collect the information from the message with the help of their superiors. It would increase synchronization in team and learning on the part of employees. Moreover, such extra efforts on the part of employees as well as superiors should be supported and recognized as good management practices. (Managing diversity in the workplace)
Gender sensitization is one of the most important issues in managing diversity because of the preponderance or superiority in the number and power of women in the workforce today. Although men and women work together, they cannot be treated equally. Fair treatment is important in this context as well. For example, manager can ask a male employee to do overtime, but the same cannot be asked in case of a female employee. There are laws, rules and policies on gender specific issues for fair treatment of women, enacted by both government, as well as management in most organizations, but the problem is that it is not properly being followed. Hence, a mindset change is the requirement, rather than formation of more policies, and it is possible only if the workforce is sensitized to the needs of women.
Managing Diversity vs. Affirmative Action
The main aim of diversity management is to manage the diversities in the organization in such a way that the abilities of all employees are maximized and organizational goals ultimately met. However, affirmative action is not concerned with all the groups in the organization, but with some specific groups because of historical discrimination based on color, gender, etc. While affirmative action is a result of the legal necessity and fulfilling social responsibility; managing diversity is due to necessity of business. When we talk of managing diversities in an organization, gender or color discriminations are concerned as the narrower perspectives, rather focus is on the broader organizational perspective which helps everyone to grow on fair terms. (Diversity in Organizations)
It has been proposed that different feasible approaches should be adopted by HR managers as a part of their HRM strategies, to manage the issues of diversity in workforce. Key performance indicators should be specified in advance and the results should be evaluated accordingly on a regular basis. Although Air Arabia has taken progressive steps in this direction, there is much progress yet to be made, and a considerable part of it depends on the roles and responsibilities adopted and influences made by all managers, whether executives, line managers or HR managers towards development and implementation of HRM and diversity management policies and practices (C. Sheehan, 2006).
It is the task of the HR professionals to find ways and means to proactively help the organization's leaders and management to understand the situation and its negative implications, and adjust their mindset accordingly, so that diversity management becomes a source of competitive advantage. The positive outcomes of diversity management should be considered and disadvantages should be worked upon in order to avail the advantages. Firstly, diversity tools and practices can help in increasing motivation, job satisfaction and commitment towards work from the employees' side, thereby resulting in accomplishment of higher levels of productivity from the current pool of labor. Secondly, these practices would gradually enhance the brand value of an employer and help them in the core HRM strategies concerned with attracting, managing and retaining talent. It would help them attract better quality labor, retain the employees and reduce the labor turnover. Thirdly, an effective diversity strategy would help the talented people to advance in the organization and help themselves build a good career graph. Finally, Air Arabia and the companies practicing effective diversity programs and maintaining harmony in the organization can obtain recognition and goodwill in the market by being observed as following good corporate governance and being a caring organization. This would also help them bridge the gap between the workplace and the marketplace (Childs, 2005).
But if this diversity issues are not addressed properly and in time, it would cost time, money, and efficiency to the organization. Unhealthy tensions, loss of productivity and profitability, inability to attract and retain talented people of all kinds, complaints and legal actions, blow to reputation of the company, costs in recruitment and training, etc. are some of the situations which an organization has to face in absence of appropriate diversity practices.