As president of San Diego training firm Cross-Cultural Communications, Sondra Thiederman has spent the last 25 years helping companies create diversity programs that actually work. Author of the book, Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace, Thiederman’s clients include General Motors, Xerox, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, Marriott Corp., American Express, and AT&T. We asked her to shed some light on the right and wrong ways to approach corporate diversity.
Q: You’ve spent 25 years helping companies improve diversity. How have you seen corporate diversity evolve in that time?
A: The biggest change has been in how the word “diversity” is defined. It no longer refers, as it once did, to just race and gender differences. It has been broadened, in most corporate settings, to encompass any ways in which individual human beings differ, including such elements as place of birth, personality, and work style.
Q: In light of recent economic struggles, are companies becoming more or less concerned with diversity? Why?
A: They seem to be more concerned about diversity. This is because most now realize that they cannot succeed in business unless they create workplaces in which people of all backgrounds are comfortable and can, therefore, function to the best of their ability. Without a highly functioning workplace in which diverse points-of-view and experiences can be tapped, it will be impossible to succeed in our increasingly global and diverse economy. In addition, companies also know that they are at risk of losing customers if they do not practice respectful management of team members who reflect that customer base.
Q: Is there research to back that up?
A: Yes. The University of Massachusetts Center for Social Development, for example, found that 87 percent of those surveyed would prefer to give their business to companies that hire people with disabilities. And in a Harris Interactive survey, participants were asked if this statement applied to them: “I choose to do business with companies that I know have a commitment to diversity.” Sixty-five percent strongly agreed.
Q: Have your clients found that to be true?
A: Yes, accounting firms PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte & Touche, for example, were told by several of their largest clients that the firms must maintain racial and gender diversity on their teams or the clients will take their business elsewhere. Law firms, too, are aware of the importance of maintaining diversity among their associates. The firms utilized by Shell Oil, for example, were surveyed by the company to be sure that each and every one of them had solid inclusion programs in place. According to Catherine Lamboley, Shell’s general council, the company actually stopped doing business with a couple of firms that, their survey revealed, were just giving lip service to diversity. Most dramatically, another organization won a $157 million request for proposal from an obviously important customer largely because one-third of its documentation was devoted to the issue of minority vendors. They won the client, by the way, despite the fact that their bid was not the lowest. It doesn’t get better than that.
Q: But you say a diverse workforce is not necessarily good for business. Why?
A: That statement is wrong because it is missing two key words. This is more accurate: A diverse workforce is not automatically good for business. Although a diverse workforce is theoretically beneficial, it will never reach its business-generating potential if the workplace is riddled with bias. Biases inevitably tax our organizations in stifled creativity, lost revenue, and costly discrimination suits.
Q: And you say every person has biases. Can you explain?
A: Yes, all of us no matter what our background, have biases. This is because biases are essentially a coping mechanism that helps us sort out a complex and sometimes dangerous world. If, for example, we touch the red coils of a hot electric stove, we learn to be “biased” against hot stoves and never touch them again. The problem is, this sort of learning does not work well when it comes to our relationships with other human beings. That is because, unlike electric stoves and their red-hot coils, each human being is different.
Q: So how do companies defeat those biases?
A: 1. Create mechanisms and training that will allow team members to become aware of their biases in a safe environment. 2. Encourage team members to explore the roots of their biases as a means of weakening their foundation. 3. Create affinity groups in which people of different backgrounds can mix around shared goals and concerns. 4. Encourage the creation of clubs, volunteer organizations, and activities that allow people of diverse backgrounds to work and play together toward a common goal. 5. Create mechanisms that will encourage people to behave appropriately even if they, in fact, have a bias. 6. Hold every group to the same high standard when it comes to inappropriate words or actions. 7. Provide training on effective dialogue about diversity with an emphasis on mutual understanding and identification of shared concerns.