Diversity in the workplace means having a group of employees with a wide range of diverse backgrounds in terms of race, ethnicity age, gender, disability and other characteristics.
The needle towards diversity in the workplace has moved. Today’s US workforce includes nearly one-third who are minorities, nearly one-half who are women, and more than 30 percent who are aged 55 or older. And these stats will continue to increase dramatically in the next ten years.
Why is diversity so important? I attended recent roundtable where the executives reported how comprehensive diversity programs resulted in many positive consequences. A diverse workplace had helped attract and retain high-quality people from a variety of backgrounds. They found it was a way to differentiate a market position. Contracts were won due to meeting contract minimum diversity benchmarks. They agreed, more importantly, it made them more profitable.
Look at the demographics of your customers and clients. Are they all from just one demographic- of course not. Your company needs to identify with your customer’s tastes and wants. Diversity and inclusion can lead to leveraging a competitive advantage.
Achieving diversity goals may present some major challenges. Change starts at the top and diversity begins with senior management sharing diversity of thought. Diversity of thought is critical first step to innovation. If everyone thinks the same way (a room full of “yes” men) that speaks volumes about the company’s diversity philosophy.
Companies will mask their lack of commitment to diversity initiatives by sighting workforce shortages. They say there is a constant struggle to find diverse and qualified candidates.
However, when asked some questions such as “Who is your diversity officer?”, “What methods do you use to find diverse candidates?” or “How much have you budgeted towards your diversity program?” We usually find the answers to be “no one”, “where?” and “none”, respectively.
The first sign a company is seriously committed to diversity is that they have a budget line item for it on their profit and loss statement. Until funds are committed to an initiative, the business really is not.
A comprehensive diversity plan has many layers. It includes a well-thought out strategy which includes an accountable diversity leader, organizational change management, training, an employee relations piece and a hiring/retention plan. The leader must be prepared for the types of roadblocks and challenges the organization will face when embracing a more diverse workforce, especially if the current demographic has not historically changed.
A good friend, whose company offers diversity training often, says that a company hasn’t dealt with diversity issues successfully unless the program has made everyone
uncomfortable. Diversity training flushes out the implicit biases, the conscience bigotry and the fear of the unknown. It sets the stage for diversity and prepares the workplace for some challenges with inclusion that may surface.
An example of this was when my firm implemented a diversity plan at a large company in Philadelphia. We had just delivered the plan to managers and had begun some diversity and inclusion training to employees. Yet, we noticed that employees in the lunchroom still gravitated towards “their own kind”. We noticed whites were in one corner, African-Americans in another, Asians in another and so forth. I approached a group of black women to ask them their thoughts regarding the training they just attended. One of the women looked me straight in the eye and said, “You can’t make me eat with white people.”
This type of exchange would make most people cringe. Except I’m a seasoned professional and I responded by congratulating her on being brave enough to express her honest opinion to me. I told her that telling me the truth was a very good start. She smiled and later she became one of champions of the inclusion program. A good program needs to be proactive in dealing with problems rather than simply reacting to problems that have occurred. It needs to be prepared for the uncomfortable.
Training must deal issues of implicit bias head on. Implicit bias is the worse because it many times goes undetected. It’s so subtle and may be coming from an unconscious level. It’s a manager telling an African-American subordinate that she’s “surprising articulate.” It’s a hiring manager assuming an older worker can’t learn their computer programs. It’s excluding the India employee to after hour gatherings. It’s a manager who automatically greets all the female employees a hug or kiss. It’s a manager who doesn’t give challenging assignments to an advanced degreed and wheelchair-bound employee.
A diversity program’s goal is to enlighten staff on diversity issues. It’s a comprehensive and dedicated plan to attack diversity backlash. Getting help from diversity experts helps tremendously. Learning to communicate across cultural and language differences is a must. These programs teach the workforce that differences among people are OK. Managers are given tools to coordinate distinctive styles into their work.
Diversity and inclusion programs respect the differences among all people and to succeed in diversity efforts, your staff must be prepared to embrace those differences. Continuing open communication is key having employees successfully work within a diverse group; keeping a clear mechanism open to aid managers and staff through the conflicts that will occur.
Diversity initiatives promote fairness, and fairness allows everyone to contribute and share in the company’s success. Diversity can help create a stronger, more unified, and more successful organization that will benefit everyone, not to mention improving the bottom line.