Diversity...the word has come to mean both a great deal and very little, depending on the context in which it is used. It has also come to mean many different things to many different people. For some it represents opportunity and inclusion. For others it's simply one of those politically correct HR programs....hot today and forgotten tomorrow.
We've all seen and heard the employment market predictions: when the Boomers retire en masse, the labor pool will be stretched thin as companies scramble to fill their vacancies. To succeed, companies will need to embrace the available workforce in its entirety - with its rich texture of age, race, religion, socio-economic background, etc. Without that, the likelihood of melding a successful pool of talent to drive the company into the future is in question.
Until recently, diversity was usually defined in terms relating to race and gender issues. But the current and growing trend in both business and society is to define diversity in much broader terms that include appearance, age, physical abilities, language, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, religion, marital/parental status and so on. It's a formidable list of diversity issues, but it also represents a positive desire on the part of an ever-increasing number of employees and employers alike to embrace a broadly-defined and culture-driven approach to workplace diversity.
Culture-driven is the key
Far too many organizations still see diversity as largely centered on only race and gender issues. As a result, the primary focus of their diversity program is to increase the numbers of women and minority employees on a multitude of graphs and charts that represent a false sense of accomplishment, while presenting the organization as "sensitive" to the issue of diversity. Little time is spent on winning the hearts and changing the minds of the organization's workforce.
Diversity awareness must be linked directly to the strategic business plan. But it cannot be designated as a separate "affirmative action" component. Instead, it must be woven into every fiber of the company's operations. That effort begins where the employee lifecycle begins, with recruiting. Recruiting for diversity is tied to the fact that global businesses demand insight and experience with various cultures and countries. That translates to instituting a truly expansive recruiting effort in which global business objectives are a major consideration.
Diversity Leads to Business Innovation
As organizations expand and move into new and innovative business models, creative thinking is going to become more and more valued. Tapping into a talent reservoir that is truly free from the influences and restraints of traditional diversity barriers opens an organization's doors to a myriad of employees representing a wide variety of life experiences. Life experiences translate into different ways of examining, solving and implementing business strategies, customer service issues, sales programs and operational problems.
Then, of course, there are the issues of global marketing, global product sales and global business-to-business relationships. Language differences, cultural nuances and even the simple elements of life like food, art, housing and transportation all have major impacts on the way business is done within and across national and continental borders. The need for a culturally diverse workforce in a global company would seem to be natural if a company is to maximize its success.
Additionally, in an organization in which cultural diversity is not only an accepted but also a clearly articulated goal, there are certain to be fewer claims of discrimination and harassment. Best, a commitment to a culturally diverse workforce lays wide open a whole universe of recruiting sources from which to choose the best and the brightest of future employees.
While there are almost as many approaches to building a culture-driven diversity program as there are organizations striving to implement them, there is great value in examining some of the elements that are critical to any successful effort.
The Nine Step Process to Real Workforce Diversity
1. Diversity Doesn't Just Happen
For real diversity to take root in an organization, it needs to be seeded and grown by a solid and supported structure within management. That element should be designated the "Task Force for Diversity" or some other appropriate title. Keep the office out of the HR department. The head of this component must have officer ranking and report directly to the highest level of management, preferably the CEO. Supporting the office should be an Executive Council comprised of senior executives who approve the diversity agenda, including recommendations, strategies, goals and vision statements. Finally, employees representing various disciplines and employment levels of the company should be selected to serve on the task force to insure that the program stays on track.
2. Training, Training and More Training
We're not talking about one of those single day, check the box kind of training efforts. The program should be tailored to the various workforce audiences for whom it is designated, based on factors like level of education, length of service, responsibilities and demographics. Most important, the training must be continual. It needs to be part of every new employee orientation, planning retreat, sales session and corporate restructuring. And top line executives have got to be there; visible in their attendance and uncompromising in their collective commitment.
3. Form Affinity Groups and Link Them to Mentoring
The formation of "Affinity Groups" should be encouraged throughout the company. For example, Women, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian communities can support and provide resources to the overall diversity program. Obviously the efforts of these affinity groups should be linked to business objectives. While mentoring is an important element in the makeup of these groups, it does not have to come from someone within the group itself. It's the level and experience of the mentor that should be the most important factor.
4. It Isn't Just a Question of How High Diversity Reaches
Too often there is a tendency to focus only on vertical diversity: how high up have women and people of color risen in the organizational structure. A company must first achieve horizontal integration for real diversity to occur. That means promoting and instituting diversity through all departments and functions. It also means paying attention to who is assigned the cross-functional, developmental projects that add breadth and depth to one's knowledge, experience and exposure.
5. Interns Can Become Valuable Employees
Many companies have found intern programs to be an effective way to identify and attract talent for entry-level management positions. Colleges, universities and community organizations are great sources for such interns. In most cases, the schools and other organization will be more than happy to help establish and administer such intern programs.
6. Make Diversity a Business -Wide Initiative
Treat diversity as an organizational development issue and the results may astound you. If you integrate diversity initiatives with organizational improvement efforts like Six Sigma, Good to Great, Appreciative Inquiry, and self-managed work teams, the diversity commitment begins to resonate with emphasis throughout the entire organization.
7. Real Diversity Demands Flexibility and Innovation
The commitment to diversity also demands a commitment to a wide range of other progressive employment policies, benefits and programs. Telecommuting, flex-time, and part-time work are examples. Longer paid maternity leaves, paid parental leaves for adoption purposes, domestic partner benefits, child care assistance and elder care assistance will also have a positive impact on your diversity effort. These kinds of programs are highly valued by younger and non-traditional workers. Conservative corporate cultures that reject such programs will find real diversity a difficult goal to achieve.
8. Don't Forget the People Who Want Your Business
Organizations need to be extremely proactive in spreading their business through a wide range of suppliers who represent true diversity. This may mean providing various forms of assistance or partnerships to firms that have not yet reached full organizational maturity.
9. Be Passionate but not Indefinite
Your diversity commitment is always going to be about change. So, from the beginning, realize that achieving real diversity will be a never-ending objective. As such, diversity must become an ongoing executive passion. Paradoxically, an organization will know when it has achieved true commitment to diversity when much of the official diversity supportive structure can be dismantled, without impacting the progress towards diversity.
A culture-driven diversity program represents a long-term commitment that begins in the most upper levels of management but cascades downward until it permeates every aspect of the business, from purchasing, through HR and operations, and into the sales force. By recognizing the value a diverse workforce can generate, organizations have opened up a vast array of knowledge they may not have leveraged previously. It's these companies that will likely have the best chance of survival and success in an increasingly competitive global business climate.
This article was prepared in conjunction with Pope & Associates, a full-service diversity consulting firm, helping clients create an organizational culture that leverages differences for maximum performance and results. For more information, see www.popeandassociates.com .
Brian E. Powers is President and Chief Executive Officer of BakerER, a strategic growth and workplace management consulting firm. Whether in the marketplace or workplace, our promise is simple: we help organizations that compete on the basis or their relationships to be the “best choice” for their customers and employees. The end result: sustainable, profitable growth for the organization.
Contact Brian Powers by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives