© pixabay.com/suewest

Diversity and its Role as a Success Factor in Companies

Diversity and equal opportunity at the workplace

Some companies still struggle with the idea of taking on older applicants, or applicants with different ethnic backgrounds or socio-cultural heritages, or even the disabled. Yet there are so many good examples of how such differences promote harmony and make it possible to set up successful teams, as the Steinbeis expert Wolfgang Natzke explains.

If you’re Brazilian, the name Garrincha will be music to your ears. This name is inseparably linked to the World Cup titles of 1958 and 1962. It’s a name that some use to describe the best soccer player of all time, even above Pelé. The real person behind the name Garrincha was Manuel Francisco dos Santos, and for him success was anything but handed to him on a plate. Born in the Brazilian jungle, Garrincha had to overcome a number of personal impediments. From birth, he had a deformed spine and his left leg was actually 6cm shorter than his right leg. After a series of operations, he was able to move around properly and walk, but he remained bowlegged on the left with a knock-knee on the right. He began playing soccer, more for therapeutic reasons than for the sport, and developed a talent that must have left people dumbfounded given his apparent physical handicaps. Garrincha mocked his opponents with his crazy-looking, almost slapstick dribbling, which clearly should not even have been possible with his “handicap.” The Brazilian author Nelson Rodrigues once even referred to him as the Charlie Chaplin of soccer.

His story almost sounds like something from a teaching book but it reflects the significance and benefit of diversity in business and our society in general. The tale of Garrincha is an example of how people with physical disabilities can be of benefit to a team. In fact, modern professional soccer could be used as a blueprint for the success that’s possible when you integrate people with cultural differences. In 2015, the Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “I think the most diverse group will produce the best product; I firmly believe that.” Several years earlier, his company had already made a commitment to greater diversity. To boost its diversity, last year Apple started hiring more people from the Far East (25 percent of new recruits), Hispanics (15 percent), and non-Caucasians (11 percent). According to Apple, half of its new recruits now come from “groups whose representation in tech has been historically low,” which Apple defines as “Women, Black, Hispanic, and Native American.”

Social diversity is more than just the latest buzzword, and more and more firms, universities, and political interest groups are becoming involved in this area in a variety of ways. The potential offered by diversity and heterogeneity is increasingly being seen as an opportunity to trigger innovative and creative processes in research, business activities, teaching and study, society, and politics. In today’s world of work, aside from professional qualifications, an increasingly important role is now played by communication skills and the social competence offered by workers.

In 2006, four companies in Germany introduced a Charter of Diversity. In the final sentence of the program, they said: “We are convinced that living diversity and appreciating this diversity has a positive impact on the company in Germany.” Since 2010, the initiative has been sponsored by an association of the same name under the patronage of the German chancellor. By 2017, some 2,700 German firms – including well-known corporations and a variety of SMEs – as well as academic bodies, social institutions, and authorities had signed on to the charter. The signatories have made a voluntary commitment to declare as employers that they will create or promote equal opportunities among the workforce. Their belief is that the German economy can only be successful in times of globalization and demographic change if they make full use of the diversity of employees. The aim of the diversity charter is thus to engender a work environment and an organizational culture that ensures all employees are valued and supported equally.

To provide a basis for such diversity management, a four-stage model can be used. This makes it possible to capture the differences and commonalities of employees and make them tangible or understandable. The further any dimension moves away from the center of the model, the more adaptable and changeable it becomes. Naturally, the first stage of the model entails focusing on people’s specific personality. The second stage involves arranging the “inner dimension” around this personality – things that make a person almost unmistakable: nationality, ethnic origin, religion or beliefs, disability, age, sexual orientation, and identity. The third stage consists of forming the “external dimensions.” Aside from income, training, and work experience, these are personal habits, leisure time activities, a person’s appearance, his or her marital status, whether someone is a parent, and location factors. Finally, the fourth stage addresses organizational dimensions, such as a person’s function, the things they work on, the department they belong to, how long they have been at the company, whether they are a member of a union, their place of work, and management status. Although wellfunctioning diversity management should take all of these dimensions into account on a holistic level, in practice it is mostly the inner dimensions that are likely to be significant.

In a world that is becoming increasingly global, appreciating people for their heritage and the multicultural nature of the company’s workforce is of inestimable importance to success. Appreciation – which, incidentally, does not have to be unidirectional – can focus on something as simple as the foreign languages spoken by employees, or their intercultural skills. Such factors can be the key to new, foreign markets.

The basis for functioning collaboration between people of different origins can only be an open company culture in which there is mutual understanding regarding differences and similarities and that this understanding is promoted. Furthermore, this is also an opportunity to tap into new customer groups that have not yet been explicitly targeted. It is also becoming increasingly important to expressly respect individual employees’ religions and their personal values. For example, a growing number of companies and organizations appear to be observing the official vacations of different religions and they are offering corresponding foods or setting up “quiet rooms.” The idea is that employees, no matter which religion they follow, feel comfortable in the company.

Given demographic change, age factors are now becoming increasingly important. Team members of different ages offer different kinds of knowledge and experience, and this can be mutually beneficial. To ensure employees stay with companies as long as possible, ideally until they retire, it is important that businesses can offer pleasant working conditions, for example, or development opportunities matched to the needs of different age groups.

Diversity management can also help a company make better use of the capabilities and special potential offered by people with physical or mental disabilities. A term one often hears in this context is the accessible workplace. The same applies to sexual orientation. In the past, many employers considered such factors a purely personal issue for employees but in the meantime many recognize that being open-minded regarding such factors can be highly motivating and empower people.

Finally, to a certain extent gender performs a dual role in diversity management. Given demographic change, women are increasingly regarded as an area of potential that has been insufficiently honored or tapped into in the past. Furthermore, a number of studies have concluded that more and more important key competences in the world of work (including team spirit, organizational skills, and the ability to work under pressure) are becoming increasingly natural to women. As a result, the goal can only therefore be to make more use of the female workforce in all areas of the employment market in the future.


Wolfgang Natzke is the director of Business Management and Innovation, a Steinbeis Transfer Institute at Steinbeis University Berlin (SHB). His institute offers services with a clear three-pronged focus on problems, solutions, and success. These range from certification courses to the planning and running of practice-based workshops, training, and specialist seminars in the following areas: organizational and HR development, recruitment, innovation management, and the optimization of leadership

Wolfgang Natzke
Steinbeis Transfer Institute Business Management and Innovation (Porta Westfalica)