Workforce Diversity: Making It Work

by Lindenberger, Judith Wednesday, October 13, 2010
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The workforce demographics of the American workforce are a far cry from what they were 50 years ago, when more than half the American workforce consisted of white males who were the sole breadwinners in the household. Statistics show that as the Baby Boomers move into retirement fully 85 percent of the workforce will be comprised of women or minorities. The challenge that diversity poses involves how to manage this mixture of genders, cultural backgrounds, ages and lifestyles at a time when companies are moving away from the authoritative management style and replacing it with a flatter, more open, more team-oriented approach to decision-making.

The challenge to companies in general is not simply to adapt to diversity but to capitalize on it. Many companies today are discovering that when you're competing in the global marketplace, with customers from all over the world, workplace diversity - especially at the managerial level - can be a significant, competitive advantage.

The long-term success of any business calls for a diverse body of talent who can bring fresh ideas, perspectives and views. It's also no secret that the lack of diversity can affect your ability to communicate effectively with diverse clients.

Just how important is diversity anyway? While organizations deal with a sluggish economy, search for the best talent and compete in a global marketplace, business leaders are scratching their heads and asking, "We follow EEOC guidelines. We recruit broadly. We’ve addressed diversity successfully, haven’t we?"

But unless business leaders link their diversity strategies to specific goals like performance and the bottom line, they have not effectively addressed the importance of diversity in the workplace.

In an American subsidiary of a global bank based in Japan, a few Japanese female workers complained to management that their older Japanese male bosses were being disrespectful to them. The human resources manager questioned all of the women in the office. Every Japanese woman reported problems with the Japanese men. In contrast, the American women reported no problems at all. Confused, the human resources manager questioned the Japanese male managers. The answer? The Japanese men responded that they understood American expectations related to sexual harassment, so they were careful about what they said to the American women. They were perplexed by the responses of the Japanese women. “What is the problem?” the Japanese men wanted to know, “They know that we don’t mean anything. Any Japanese person would understand.”

People from a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds were hired to work in an American health insurance company. The mix of different native languages and cultures, however, did not mix. Instead of making employees feel that they had a sub-group within their larger team, it gave rise to paranoia ("They must be talking about me.") and assumptions ("They think they are smarter than everyone else."). When the group needed to learn a new intake system, rather than pull together, they became even more estranged and productivity and morale plummeted.

Diversity is no longer just a black/white, male/female, old/young, homosexual/heterosexual issue. It is much more complicated and interesting than that. Says Harris Sussman, "Diversity is about our relatedness, our connectedness, our interactions, where the lines cross. Diversity is many things - a bridge between organizational life and the reality of people’s lives, building corporate capability, the framework for interrelationships between people, a learning exchange, a strategic lens on the world."

Diversity is about tapping into the many talents which employees from different backgrounds and perspectives bring to the workplace. An impressive example of this is found on the business cards of employees at one Fortune 100 technology company. Global business people are familiar with two-faced business cards. Employees at this company have business cards that appear normal at first glance. On closer inspection, the raised Braille characters of employee information are evident.

Many companies, however, still face challenges with building a diverse environment. Part of the reason is that we try to pigeonhole employees, placing them in a different silo depending on their diversity profile. If an employee is male, over 50, gay, English, and an atheist, under what diversity category does this employee fall? Gender, generational, sexual preference, global or religious? In the real world, diversity cannot be easily siloed and those organizations that respond to human complexity by leveraging the talents of a broad workforce will be the most effective in growing their businesses and their customer base.

So, back to scratching our heads - how do we develop a diversity strategy that gets results? The companies with the most effective diversity programs take a holistic approach to diversity by following these guidelines:

1. Link diversity to the bottom line. When finding ways to increase corporate profits, look to new markets or to partnering with your clients more strategically. Consider how a diverse workforce will enable your company to meet those goals. Think outside the box. Your new customers may be people with disabilities or people over the age of 65. Who can help you reach new markets? At a spirits manufacturing company based in the Midwest, a significant number of products were being purchased by Hispanics yet there were few Hispanics in the sales force. The company made the bold move to hire a Director of Hispanic Marketing and in less than a year, sales increased dramatically.

2. Practice what you preach. If senior management advocates a diverse workforce, make diversity evident at all organizational levels. If you don't, some employees will quickly conclude that there is no place for them in your future. Don’t be afraid to use words like black, white, gay or lesbian. Show respect for diversity issues and promote clear and positive responses to them.

3. Broaden your efforts. What does "diversity" mean at your company? Does it only refer to race and gender? If so, expand your definition and your diversity efforts. As Baby Boomers age and more minorities enter the workplace, the shift in demographics means that managing a multi-generational and multi-cultural workforce will become a business norm. Also, there is a wealth of specialized equipment available to enable people with disabilities to contribute successfully to their work environments. Make sure that your organizational environment supports diversity broadly or you risk losing talent to your competitors.

4. Remove artificial barriers to success. How does your organization recruit talent? The style of interview - behavioral or functional- as well as the expectations of the interviewees may disadvantage some potential employees. Older employees, for example, are less familiar with behavioral interviews and may not perform as well unless your recruiters directly ask for the kind of experiences they are looking for. Employees from countries outside the US and non-Caucasian populations may downplay their achievements or focus on describing, "who they know" rather than "what they know." Train your recruiters to understand the cultural components of interviews.

5. Retain diversity at all levels. The definition of diversity goes beyond race and gender to encompass lifestyle issues. Programs that address work and family issues - alternative work schedules and child and elder care resources and referrals - make good business sense.

6. Provide practical training. Using relevant examples to teach small groups of people how to resolve conflicts and value diverse opinions helps companies far more than large, abstract diversity lectures. Training needs to emphasize the importance of diverse ideas as well. Workers care more about whether or not their boss seems to value their ideas than if they are part of a group of all white males or an ethnically diverse workforce. In addition, train leaders to move beyond their own cultural frame of reference to recognize and take full advantage of the productivity potential inherent in a diverse population.

7. Mentor with strangers. Involve your managers in a mentoring program to coach and provide feedback to employees who are different from them. When looking for a mentor for yourself, don’t stick to a safe model. Find someone who is different than you and who will give you a new perspective on getting ahead in your career.

8. Measure your results. Why continue doing something that is not working? Conduct regular organizational assessments on issues like pay, benefits, work environment, management, and promotional opportunities to assess your progress over the long term. Continue to make regular adjustments to your diversity initiatives to learn what is working and what you can discard.

In addition, when creating your diversity initiative, think about these questions:

Do you package your services with all of your customers in mind?
What are the features of your corporate web site? Does it have diverse appeal?
How do you work with clients? Who are you keeping? Who don’t you reach?
How do you show respect for diverse populations?
How much do you know about the business/personal issues of the people with whom you work?
Do you respect and understand key issues relevant to mature employees?
Do you communicate in plain English, rather than using jargon that is more easily understood by one subgroup or age than another?
Can you speak the languages of the people with whom you work?

In the book, Beyond Race and Gender, R. Roosevelt Thomas defines managing diversity as "a comprehensive managerial process for developing an environment that works for all employees." Strategic diversity programs not only develop an environment that works for all employees but also build an environment that leads to increased profits and lowered expenses.

Says Sussman, "A company cannot afford to be a community of sameness while the world around it is increasingly a community of differences. Organizations are strengthened by leveraging differences that mirror the diversity of other people - all other people - coworkers, vendors, suppliers, subcontractors, customers, competitors, partners."

Build your business with everything you’ve got, with the complex multi-dimensional talents and personalities of your workforce, and make diversity work for you.