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February 6, 2008

Diversity Reaches Across a Wide Spectrum of Ideas

“Students often view diversity only in terms of race or gender," according Dr. Nancy Rasmussen, UW-Eau Claire management lecturer. “Because our students’ exposure to the workplace is often limited, their viewpoints are often shaped by the media and popular television programs like The Office," she said. While diversity can be an asset to an organization, it is tricky to define.

“There isn’t one standard definition of diversity or what diversity in the workplace means,” said Rasmussen.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits job discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Later federal regulations added older workers, veterans, pregnant women and those with disabilities to this list. While these regulations did not mandate diversity in the workplace, they did cause companies to examine their policies and procedures. Company standards have continued to evolve, in part to reflect the demographics of the United States population which is older, and more culturally and ethnically diverse. The notion of workplace diversity has changed from compliance to the belief that it’s a good business practice.

Need for Diversity Course

One out of every four Americans identified themselves as a member of a minority group, according to the 2000 Census. As a result, UW-Eau Claire graduates are likely to find themselves working in a culturally diverse company.

To give students an overview of the major diversity issues they may experience in the workplace, all College of Business students take the Diversity Workplace course taught by Rasmussen.

“The course builds a business case for diversity,” Rasmussen said. “It distinguishes between discrimination and prejudice, and examines diversity challenges.”

In the course, Rasmussen has students identify their personal prejudices – positive and negative attitudes and beliefs about certain groups. Prejudices can lead to discrimination, the unequal treatment of categories of people. To stop discrimination from happening, employees must understand how their attitudes and beliefs influence their behavior on the job.

Rasmussen uses case studies to help students investigate their beliefs. In one case, for example, students must decide whether to hire a highly qualified applicant who is a member of a hate group. They must first determine how they would use this information, and then present different perspectives involved in the hiring decision.

Other cases she uses require students to decide if they should change the name of a business or logo because it’s viewed as offensive to some groups, or decide whether they should close a manufacturing business on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

In addition to identifying personal prejudices, students in Rasmussen’s class examine the business practices of companies that have created inclusive work environments.

“A business that says it supports diversity, should demonstrate it as an asset,” Rasmussen said. “It should be genuine.”

A good example of an organization that has embraced diversity as a corporate value is Eastman Kodak Company, a company consistently named to Diversity Inc.'s List of Top 50 Companies for Diversity. Kodak’s commitment to diversity starts at the top with the CEO and permeates decisions at all levels within the organization.

Rasmussen recommends that individuals think carefully about diversity-related issues, whether personal or job-related, because choices aren’t cut and dry.

”It helps to think about all sides of an issue and include many different viewpoints in your decision," she said. “ Valuing diversity requires us to think beyond what is legal to what is fair and ethical.”