Impact Feature Issue on Direct Support Workforce Development

Managing Diversity Within Human Services


Richard Oni is Director of Progressive Individual Resources, Inc., an agency providing culturally appropriate social services to recent African immigrant families, located in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Cultural diversity has been around a long time, though we have perhaps not realized it. The old idea of the United States as a “melting pot” of different cultures all combining to form one has given way to a new idea of a cultural “salad” or “quilt,” one where cultures still maintain their unique qualities and combine to form a large richer world. America is now, and has been since its inception, the destination of choice for immigrants. Two-thirds of all global immigration is into the United States, and most of these immigrants are from contrasting cultures that do not blend readily into American life.

Many human service providers must interact with staff and with people receiving their services who are culturally different from themselves. To foster an environment that positively supports diversity, administrators of provider organizations must address a number of areas. Managing diversity is to create and sustain an organizational environment in which all workers of all kinds can perform well, have opportunities to develop their full potential to contribute to the organization, and are equipped to provide culturally appropriate services to individuals with disabilities and families. The starting point for agencies seeking to effectively manage diversity is in hiring practices.

Agency administrators must make a concerted effort to institute equal employment opportunities and affirmative action in the hiring process. The following suggestions should be considered:

  • Eliminate discrimination by ensuring that all selection devices are job related (valid), and free of cultural bias.
  • Institute aggressive recruitment from groups that are under-represented in the agency.
  • Provide training and sensitization to diversity and cultural differences for all managers involved in the hiring process.
  • Establish realistic goals (not rigid quotas) for hiring a diverse workforce so that an agency can assess its progress in the hiring and promotion processes.
  • Appoint members of diverse groups to committees of the company.

Diversity in hiring must be coupled with training and a long-term commitment to managing diversity. Managing diversity should include the following:

  • Create opportunities for staff, individually and collectively, to discuss issues related to ethnic, racial, cultural or gender differences in an honest and upfront manner, while protecting each person’s sensitivities and not invading his or her private life.
  • Create opportunities for staff to explore the values, perspectives, and communication methods of the different groups represented within the agency and among those to whom they provide services.
  • Make explicit to all staff the unwritten rules of the agency.
  • Establish and regularly revisit the agency rules regarding anti-discrimination and harassment.
  • Develop a mentoring program to help DSPs from diverse cultures to succeed on the job.
  • Include managing diversity, understanding cultural differences, and problem-solving in a diverse workforce on the agenda at staff meetings as well as in formal training.
  • When training immigrant and minority workers, use methods appropriate for adult learners, especially adult learners for whom English may be a second language. Some suggested strategies are use extensive handouts; avoid jargon, slang, and idioms; provide a glossary of necessary jargon; use visual aids; allow questions to be asked anonymously and in writing; and summarize and check for understanding frequently.

Top management commitment is mandatory for successfully managing diversity in human services. The explicit and implicit signals sent by top management through its support of diversity in leadership, attendance at training programs, promotion of high-visibility diversity projects, and swift and forceful responses to people and practices that stand in the path of accomplishing true multiculturalism in the workplace will determine whether agencies and their staff are successful in providing services for individuals with disabilities in an increasingly multicultural country.