This article is written from the perspective of humanistic psychology. It attempts to draw a link between diversity and counselling, both by professional counsellors and those managers whose communication skills are facilitative, and take their lead from counselling skills in the workplace.


Why diversity?

Look around you. What kind of world do you see? When you go shopping, when you’re in the pub, when you’re at a concert, in fact wherever you are or whatever you’re doing as you go about in daily life – do you see only a world populated by ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestants’?

Now, look around your workplace. What kind of world do you see here? Does it mirror what our society is really like? If not, why not? Are we frightened of what is in that mirror? Do we have any reason to be? Is it simply easier to pretend they’re not there if people don’t share the same culture, don’t have the same religion, don’t wear the same clothes, don’t eat the same food, if they have different preferences for partners, or have disabilities, or are growing

Looking after the staff includes respect for their diverse humanity.

Managing diversity has been a key business concern in the US for over 19 years. In Europe, in the last 10 years, having accepted arguments that workforce diversity brings business benefits, many organisations have been paying increasing
attention to the subject. 

“To get equal treatment, you have to treat people differently – if you don’t see things differently, there would be no individuality, we would be automatons.” (Diversity workshop participant).

Seeing differently

The link between internal diversity and external communities is now well established.

For example, in the art world, an organisation that reflects the communities in which it operates is more attractive to visitors and quality applicants, hence maximising resources (both human and financial), saving potential legal costs and making more money from patronage.

In policing and other community services, it is clear that quality of service is at the heart of providing the best value. So linking how people work together is the foundation to successfully providing public satisfaction. Underpinning excellence is how people relate to one another, how they work together and feel empowered, and hence become enabled to take responsibility for their decisions and actions. Thus they can ensure they provide quality and service equally to all communities without favour or prejudice.

In the private sector, for example in retailing where contact with the customer is part of an ongoing process, a well known chief executive recently quoted: “When you look after the staff, they will look after the customer”. Looking after the staff includes respect for their diverse humanity.

Man and woman at computer in office

Becoming aware

In practice, working with diversity means becoming aware of the diversity between ourselves, the people we work with, the organisation, and the communities. So it becomes possible to examine how diversity impacts on the excellence – or otherwise - of our service to our employer and to our client groups.

We define diversity as four-fold: values, emotional, identity and physical. Some differences are visible, for example, physical characteristics, and others are emotional such as behaviour and style. Invisible difference includes values such as integrity and a way of life, and identity - also invisible - such as identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community and social class. Some of our differences find their origin in our roots, others are a conscious choice, and others still are an unconscious orientation.

The legal background

The legal backdrop against which diversity is often placed is important in that it protects human beings and organisations. It gives people rights that are enforceable by law, and it imposes obligations on employers and their employees, which they ignore at their peril since the ceiling has been lifted on compensations awarded by tribunals.

An ethical and values-driven approach

“I have no hope of learning to see through another’s eyes, yet if I don’t I will never see differently.” (Workshop participant – 1999).

Working with diversity requires humanistic respect for individual rights and most counsellors will be familiar with the following principles: (Rogers 1969, Kurt Lewin 1952):

• dignity
• self-esteem
• privacy and autonomy
• the use of professional ‘virtues’ (such as integrity, transparency, respect)
• an ethic of care by being attuned to the specific individual needs and circumstances as well as principles
• a concern with the consequences of action

These are essential to working with individuals and groups, as well as motivating staff and teams. They are the desirable principles that should underpin effective management style and teambuilding styles in every workplace. Managers who translate these principles into their leadership and motivational approach are known to inspire their teams and gain their increased respect and commitment.

What gets in the way – unconscious bias

Harassment, bullying, intimidation and victimisation are well known unacceptable behaviours, which now fall within the ambit of the law. People are more likely to be harassed and bullied if their way of being doesn’t fit well within what each individual perceives as “the norm”, the majority culture of the organisation. Treating people with fairness and respect means avoiding misusing power to make unreasonable demands, shouting and eyeballing, threats, marginalising and isolating someone because of their difference.

These behaviours are not always visible as evidenced by fresh light on the use of electronic mail as a vehicle for sexual harassment.

Woman with laptop by window

Examples of inappropriate behaviours include:

• A woman police officer was repeatedly asked to justify her performance and attendance outside the formal appraisal process. This process was used by her boss as an opportunity to make inappropriate comments and lewd suggestions to her. She was told that if she did not comply, this would be reflected in her annual performance review with a poor report and affect her promotion prospects. After several months of this, the woman left the service, she decided against making a formal complaint.

• In a focus group, a black participant went by a nickname which one person in the room objected to in principle: it was the policy in this organisation that nicknames were tantamount to inappropriate banter and should not be used. However, her black colleague was insistent that this was the name he wanted to be known by, and they jointly worked through the conflict towards resolution. She now has accepted his permission to call him by the name he wants to be known as and does so, but is certain she would only do so after checking with each individual.

• A senior manager in a public service organisation found herself increasingly isolated six months after joining. In spite of having been recruited on merit and on her track record, she was repeatedly told by the chief executive that she was incapable of doing a satisfactory job of managing her people. This female senior manager had indeed a passionate and spirited approach (coming from an Italian background), and the prevailing culture in the organisation found it hard to accept her.

At no time however, was she given support in a positive way, for example, by offering her training. Instead, failings were relentlessly pointed out verbally and in writing. One after the other, her colleagues shunned her and she eventually found herself ostracised. She was however offered, and accepted, coaching with an executive mentor.

Although she became aware, began to experiment with different choices and began to improve her effectiveness, she was not given the support by her colleagues to complete her personal transition: she was asked to resign. Her health started to suffer significantly, and although her legal adviser confirmed that she had indeed a case to take to a tribunal, her length of service and type of contract precluded her from doing so. She is now in therapy.

The upshot for the recipient of unfair and oppressive behaviours is a persistent feeling of humiliation, loss of self-worth, increase in stress and emotional distress, fear, persistent anxiety leading to physical symptoms and an inability to confront the bullying behaviours.

For colleagues, it is easy to seek detachment from the problem, find confluence in 'sameness' and so isolate those who do not ‘fit in’.

There is evidence that women raise bullying and harassment issues more readily than do men, who could feel a threat to their masculinity and rationalise what is happening to them away by behaving in a macho way. There is however a growing trend of men raising grievances, in particular where race is concerned, and the enquiry into the tragic death of Stephen Lawrence and the Menson case review, testify to the need to tackle bullying, unwitting' behaviours and racism.

In today’s climate of continuous change and restructures, the accompanying insecurities often generate more 'picking on difference'. The perception and tolerance of levels of harassment vary by organisation and industry sector and hierarchy.

Individual boundaries vary, and therefore what is acceptable banter in some circumstances to a certain individual, may be totally inappropriate behaviour to another. It is not so much the action in itself which constitutes harassment, but how it is perceived by the recipient. Unacceptable in any context are ways of behaving that are unwanted, obnoxious, make the workplace an intolerable place to be, and/or affect an individual’s career or job prospects.

Male and female colleague sitting at laptop in boardroom

What gets in the way – not seeing or hearing

Stereotyping and unwitting discrimination are at the heart of working with diversity. People see the world through the eyes of their experience and expect that to be their reality – and it is.

When we examine the three groups whose differences are visible and well recognised, we still find assumptions around appropriate roles, being and opportunities. Ageism adds another dimension to all differences. For example:

When dealing with gender issues, priorities differ between men and women, although increasingly men have begun to address issues around work and home balance. Often still, women with children are under pressure to outperform their male colleagues to prove their value to the organisation. So, they put in long hours to show they are keen to be promoted. This is often in conflict with their need for quality time with their family, especially when children are young.

Other issues which can add to the conflict of priorities are being the sole breadwinner in the family, or being a single parent. The latter is often still the greatest taboo. Because of the perceived management pressures and expectations, women can deny themselves the opportunity to ask for changes.

There is an implicit assumption in the above that children are the woman’s issue. They are not necessarily, although pregnancy and childbirth clearly are. Where men are responsible for childcare the same counselling issues will apply, although in our patriarchal work organisation it is doubtful whether many men would easily bring out this need.

Men often have a different perception of gender issues. Often they have different expectations of women’s performance and they sometimes believe that women’s focus on work vanishes once they have started a family. Often men perceive women as being over-emotional (evidenced, for example, by women slamming doors). Women can see men as controlling, over-ambitious and career-driven, and insensitive to their identity. They are said to be generally 'emotionally illiterate'.

And whilst there is much work ongoing about emotional intelligence/literacy, there is room for more highlighting of the issue around ‘emotion’ in the workplace.

Race relations have been much in the foreground recently, and it is well known that unemployment rates are higher for black people than white people, that considerable disparities exist in pay and working conditions and in selection decisions. The latter can be attributed in part to internal appointments, informal recruitment and subjective selection criteria applied by unaware recruitment decision-makers. 

In UK research, black managers are reported as experiencing negative stereotyping (in one organisation, a manager from Latin America was adamant he did not want to be identified as ‘different’ because he would feel exposed as coming from a minority group in a management position).

The research also finds that black managers experience heightened visibility and performance pressure, lack of co-operation from white peers, exclusion from informal networks (this is often the case for all differences), making mistakes bringing extra penalties, having to bridge a credibility gap, being sidelined into routine ‘showcase’ jobs (security, front of house) or dealing with black staff or customers.

Most of this would be very much underground: in a series of interviews in one organisation, one black manager stated that no one was openly racist, but the culture was one of being frozen out by unconscious bias.

Three male colleagues in office

The third group, with often visible differences but not necessarily so, are disabled people and recent legislation imposes new regulations on organisations, both for their staff and their customers.

What are the hidden common assumptions about disabled people? Some of them revolve around their being perceived as victims, or principally wheelchair users, or children in need of help, of recipients of charity, of marginal participants in working or community life. In the workplace, they can be stigmatised as problem cases, who have special needs and require special treatment, or who are expensive because they may need adaptations to equipment of premises.

The reality is that the majority of disabled people are ordinary people, who have become disadvantaged in some way, perhaps as a result of an accident of life, or progressive disease. The disability may be psychological, physiological or anatomical. People are disabled not so much by their condition as by how they are perceived as a result of it. Managers have been heard saying: “I value disabled people, I would like them to work with me if only they could….or if I could be sure that they wouldn’t…or if I could be sure there is no health and safety risk,…or if I felt confident they would fit into the way we do things around here”.

In a recent audit with a high profile public organisation, a senior manager who had two disabled people working in his team (both with progressively disabling illnesses), confided his pride in the care he took and in his team support, to continue to value and facilitate the contribution being made by these two staff. They were good at their job and he intended to keep them in the team, working flexibly, as long as possible.

He was clear though that he did not want his excellent management practice used as an example to the rest of the organisation, for fear he may be asked to explain and justify his actions.

Other important differences that are mostly hidden are LGBTQ+ identities (with the exception of the arts, museums and galleries world), age, religion and beliefs and travellers. These are where we encounter the greatest discomfort with our clients, although there are valuable examples of good practice in responding to individual needs.

Working with diversity is about risk. Risking challenging own assumptions and being prepared to challenge others’ inappropriate behaviours.

Dignity, respect and valuing diversity

How then, as counsellors working in organisations, or managers working with people, can we ensure we send the right messages?

You can start by checking how you see people, using your common sense, humanity and ability to empathise. You can continue by checking out reactions to certain behaviours, ways of seeing people, communication styles. Seeing differently means checking out which are appropriate responses, choosing from a range of different options to address particular issues. Check out hidden bias such as, “We only recruit graduates”, “Women will leave when they start their family”, "There are no black arts graduates”.

The invisible manifestation of unconscious bias is hard to deal with, and will present an ongoing challenge to counsellors and managers in their counselling/facilitating role. Policies need to be there to set boundaries and underpin changes in the organisational culture. Line managers often say that they treat everyone in the same manner. Do they treat people fairly though?

A good opportunity for looking at the personal working relationships can often be found in formalised appraisal processes, and where these don’t exist, in informal feedback discussions.

A wise organisation will have a policy that includes, ideally, an option to resolve problems informally, backed by counselling and mediation. As the manifestation of intolerance and disrespect for difference comes out in harassment, bullying and intimidation, this parallel option ensures that exposure, stigma and further retribution is prevented.

Line managers must be given and take in the tools that will enable them to recognise inappropriate behaviours and unwitting assumptions in their departments, and given and take on the responsibility to respond appropriately by confronting and resolving those issues. “Walking the talk” is seen through actions and deeds, not words.

Counselling the individual employee is an option where an internal counselling process exists, as is coaching the line manager. However, it is still rare that people are easily prepared to share how they feel about their working relationships, and so any information that emerges is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. Counselling of this nature requires the utmost sensitivity and total respect for confidentiality. Sponsored counselling/coaching of both the perpetrator and ‘victim’, through an EAP for example, is an option that works well for most.

In conclusion, working with diversity is about risk. Risking challenging own assumptions and being prepared to challenge others’ inappropriate behaviours. It is about expecting to be treated with dignity and respect and becoming aware of what gets in the way of celebrating diversity.


To laugh is to risk appearing the fool
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental
To reach out for another is to risk involvement
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self
To place your ideas and your dreams
before the crowd is to risk their loss.

To love is to risk not being loved in return
To live is to risk dying
To hope is to risk despair
To try is to risk failure

But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard
in life is to risk nothing.

The person who does nothing has nothing and is nothing
They may avoid suffering and sorrow but they
cannot learn, feel change, grow, love life.
Chained by their certitudes they are a slave,
They have forfeited their freedom.

Only a person who risks is free.

Author unknown.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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