In today’s competitive business environment, a diverse workforce can provide a powerful advantage. It is critical to assemble a workforce that is committed to the company’s vision, mission, objectives and key business strategies. On the other hand, the cost of ignoring workplace diversity can be devastating. Having a part of the employee population feel marginalized because they are “different” generally degenerates into discord, low morale and lack of commitment. Moreover, the past decade has brought a dramatic rise in discrimination/harassment-based lawsuits resulting in multi-million dollar settlements that could have been avoided.
Diversity Is A Key Business Strategy
Gallup research has established that organizations that embrace diversity enjoy the greatest levels of worker engagement. This type of employee connectivity to the company is manifested by increased productivity, improved workforce quality, reduced turnover and training costs, fewer grievances, improved margins and market share, marketable goodwill, better recruiting results, greater strength when faced with employment-related charges and lawsuits, and enhanced corporate creativity in problem solving and value formation.
Diversity is defined as any collective mixture characterized by similarities and differences, with accompanying tension. Positive workplace diversity, however, can be defined as a culture of trust, respect, fairness and opportunity among employees from different ethnic, racial and other backgrounds. An employer that embraces and promotes workplace diversity creates an environment that is open to diverse talents, ideas and cultures, and is free from discrimination and harassment. Diversity in this context is not about: 1) legal compliance; 2) providing a remedy for past inequities; 3) protected class status; or 4) affirmative action.
Diversity includes everyone. It is not defined by race or gender. It extends to age, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference and geographic origin.
The challenge in having a diverse workplace is to effectively manage all the different dimensions that naturally occur with human interaction. Diversity management is not a program or a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It is a comprehensive managerial process to develop a workplace environment and culture that has open communications, trust and inclusiveness in which all employees are empowered to reach their full potential.
The goal should be to obtain the maximum effort and full potential from the workforce and organizational structure. What matters most to employees is that the organization is committed to creating a climate of fairness and opportunity. Leadership sets the tone for what the organization values, and that includes a commitment to diversity.
However, perceptions of diversity are strongly influenced by the actions of each employee’s immediate supervisor or manager. Supervisors and managers can easily undermine or inhibit the commitment desired and communicated by senior leadership. The message needs to be the same at every level of the organization, from top management on down, that every employee should have the opportunity to work in an environment that is open to diverse ideas, cultures and talents, and is free from discrimination.
With the available workforce talent pool shrinking, business being conducted on a global scale, employees demanding to be individuals in the workplace, and the U.S. demographics reflecting a change in the minority population base, it is abundantly clear that American business must adapt to be competitive on the world stage. The data listed below illustrates the situation:
By 2008, women, minorities and immigrants will represent 70% of new workforce entrants.
- Women are 47% of new entrants.
- The Hispanic/Latino population is growing five times faster than the national average.
- The Asian and Hispanic/Latino population is expected to grow by 500% over the next 50 years.
- There are over 85 million people of color in the U.S.
- Blacks represent approximately 10.7% of the workforce.
- Hispanics/Latinos represent approximately 10.8% of the workforce.
- Asians represent approximately 4.8% of workforce.
Despite the fact that employers have been on notice for at least two decades that workplace demographics were changing radically, incidences of unlawful behavior have remained disturbingly high. A report compiled by the Gallup Organization indicates that women are more than twice as likely as men to assert that they have been victims of discrimination. Whites report the lowest incidence of discrimi-nation at 12%, while 31% of Asian Americans, 26% of blacks, and 18% of Hispanics reported having been discriminated against in the last 12 months. People in the 30-59 age range were somewhat more likely than those in the 18-29 or 60+ age groups to report discrimination.
Clarity of business motive in decision-making goes a long way in dispelling the subjective reason assigned by uninformed employees that tend to lean toward discrimination. Decision-making should be transparent when viewed through the eyes of an employee. Transparency, through open and consistent communication between management and staff, is the key factor in building trust, and trust is a key factor in worker perceptions of fairness and equal opportunity. Processes and procedures for hiring, promotion and growth opportunities must be transparent so that employees understand the business reasons for management actions.
Common Mistakes To Avoid
In managing a diverse workplace, organizations should be careful to avoid the following common mistakes:
- Failure to communicate how diversity relates to the company’s objectives and key business strategies.
- Inconsistent policy application.
- Insufficient training.
- No senior management “buy-in.”
- Lack of accountability.
- Allowing diversity to be used as a euphemism for affirmative action.
- Rejection of diversity initiatives because of complexity.
As the development and execution of diversity initiatives continue to mature, some trends, strategies and challenges have come to the surface from experience, frustration and success.
Trends In Diversity Initiatives
Some have found that requiring employee accountability for diversity has enhanced their company’s diversity initiatives. While communicating diversity-promoting behaviors and holding employees accountable for their conduct, some organizations have articulated a set of diversity role model behaviors that give insight and guidance to all employees about how to behave in the workplace. Several examples of diversity role mode behaviors include: conducting team-building activities; rewarding employees for innovation and flexibility; encouraging employees to take ownership of ideas and follow through; recruiting, hiring and promoting a diverse workforce; providing performance feedback based on meeting objectives and behaviors; finding common ground (by focusing on similarities, rather than differences); and being a visible spokesperson for change.
Organizations have also placed an emphasis on diversity management. To integrate diversity goals into strategic decision-making processes, organizations have taken these steps:
- Involving senior leaders in the di versity goal-creation process;
- Involving the traditional dominant presence in the workplace (white male) in the diversity goal-creation process;
- Strengthening employee talent through diversity recruiting;
- Ensuring a diverse leadership pipeline through employee development; and
- Embedding diversity champions throughout the organization.
Challenges To Diversity
Some challenges that diversity ini-tiatives have faced are quantifying diversity, managing diversity (i.e., treating fair v. treating the same) and the misperception that diversity is about affirmative action.
Attempts to achieve diversity goals must progress within lawful boundaries. Charges of “reverse discrimination” can result if employment decisions cannot be justified on a nondiscriminatory basis. This concept also extends to the hiring or firing of independent contractors. Employers can be held liable for hiring or firing independent contractors on the basis of race.
Just as fostering and properly managing a diverse workforce can enhance a company’s image in its immediate community, a proper outreach program aimed at the community can enhance the company’s image among employees. It is mutually beneficial and advantageous to incorporate the community and employees in the company’s diversity efforts. There are many ways a company can extend its diversity management program to the community: advertise in the minority media; financially support organizations whose charters are consistent with the company’s diversity management goals (e.g., the Urban League); and financially support appropriate charities (e.g., the United Negro College Fund). There are also more active approaches, such as participating in job fairs, inviting diverse groups to visit the facility, and providing speakers on diversity at public events. It is even wise to evaluate which groups in the community are potential adversaries and reaching out to them before any problem arises.
Determining what “the community” is can be a challenge in itself. Naturally, a global or nationwide company has a broad community to consider. Even on the local level, however, there may be a number of “communities within the community” to consider. These com-munities will vary by area of the country, but examples might include: the “majority” community; the “political” community; one or more immigrant communities; the African-American community; and the religious community. The better a company’s relationship with each community (inside and outside of the company), the closer that company can come to achieving its diversity goals.
By its very nature, diversity in employment is an ever-changing dynamic. Because of that continuous change, companies should periodically assess: “Where are we today in terms of achieving today’s diversity goals – and where do we see tomorrow’s diversity goals?” To make that assessment, companies should:
- Regularly revise and update their Diversity Plan;
- Survey employees about their view of the company’s efforts;
- Have a candid critical analysis of the diversity efforts assessed by outsiders (e.g., corporate auditors, consultants, attorneys) preferably under the attorney-client privilege;
- Renew commitment at every level of management;
- Recommunicate commitment at every level of the organization; and
- Reinvigorate community outreach.
Note: This article was published in the April/May 2007 issue of The Employment Law Authority.