Employers are always searching for ways to empower their employees to do their best work. They invest in training to help workers gain skills, and they develop policies designed to keep the workplace running smoothly, but other components—cultivating cultural intelligence and fostering an environment of inclusiveness—may be overlooked.
Simma Lieberman, a diversity and inclusion/culture change consultant, has advice for employers interested in leveraging the diversity they have in their employees, and it starts with shedding the attitudes that can hold an employer back.
One problem she sees is that employers often take a narrow view of diversity. They focus only on what they can see—race and color. Another problem is that some employers don’t understand that diversity is a mindset. If they’re not willing to look at their own biases, they’re less effective at leveraging the diversity of their organizations. A third problem is that employers too often fail to engage as many people as possible in their inclusion efforts.
Culture starts at the top
To overcome obstacles to diversity, Lieberman stresses the importance of involving top level management. The organization’s leadership sets the tone, but HR plays a key role by helping top management understand the business reasons for helping people of diverse backgrounds benefit from each others strengths.
HR needs to be proactive and even take a risk in showing senior leadership how important their engagement is in the process of building an inclusive workplace, Lieberman says. HR can clarify to top management the importance of helping people from all backgrounds work together and get the most out of the talents and skills a diverse collection of people brings to the organization. “It’s really not an HR thing; it’s a business thing,” Lieberman says.
Although every workplace is unique, Lieberman offers a few tips to help employers first build a diverse workplace and then capitalize on it. Here are a few suggestions:
- Train recruiters in intercultural communication. Recruiters can be more effective if they have a strong understanding of cultural differences. For example, a potential employee’s strengths may not be apparent without an understanding of how that person has been taught to communicate. People from some cultures may not be comfortable being direct when talking to higher-ups. That reticence can be misinterpreted without an understanding of cultural differences.
- Create a talent bank. Lieberman says people may be hired for one job but have other skills the employer needs. Getting to know employees as individuals and keeping a database of their skills and talents can help employers tap into strengths they might not realize they had.
- Evaluate how to use people as resources. Lieberman says it’s important for the organization to reflect the diversity of people in the community and marketplace, but it’s a mistake to be short-sighted. For example, an employer shouldn’t automatically send only employees with a Mexican background into a largely Mexican market just because of their background. Having Mexican roots doesn’t guarantee that someone will be right for the job. Instead, the organization should see which employees represent the right fit by looking beyond the obvious.
- Avoid diversity silos. Employers need to be aware of the fact that just because they have people from different backgrounds doesn’t mean they’ll automatically be productive together, Lieberman says. People need to understand one another and work together. Too often, she says, people end up “siloing.” An employer may have people from different backgrounds, but they end up in white silos, African-American silos, Latino silos, etc. “What looks good in the company photo doesn’t mean they’re really leveraging diversity,” she says. “They’re losing out on a lot of brilliance.”
- Be on guard against obstacles. Too often employers allow sexist, homophobic, or racist talk in the workplace that can turn into serious conflict. Employers will have policies against such activities, but they need to step up and intervene when necessary. When people make disparaging remarks and jokes, they’re preventing people from being able to do their best work. “Some people seriously think they’re just being funny,” Lieberman says. “They really don’t know. It’s up to the employer to make sure everybody is educated.”
More than affirmative action
Too many organizations think of diversity just in terms of affirmative action, Lieberman says, and they make the person in charge of affirmative action their diversity person. That shows a lack of understanding about what inclusiveness really is. Often the affirmative action administrator doesn’t have knowledge of how people from various cultural backgrounds work or communicate.
“Affirmative action is important as part of (inclusiveness), but it is not the end all,” Lieberman says. Besides focusing on affirmative action requirements, organizations must deal with communication styles, age, geographic background, and other aspects not included in affirmative action requirements.
Getting to know people as individuals and getting past stereotypes is crucial to effective inclusion. Lieberman gives an example of a U.S. executive going to Japan to meet with executives there. He went to a class and learned the correct bow and how to say things the right way, but when he arrived he was met by a 28-year-old Japanese manager who greeted him with an American-style “Hey, what’s happening?”
Want to learn more?
Listen to Lieberman host the webinar Six Steps to an Inclusive Workplace Culture: Tips to Motivate and Engage Your Best Employees on CD. Learn how to create a sense of community in the workplace that includes leadership, employees, and customers. For more information, call 800-274-6774 or go to http://store.hrhero.com/inclusive-workplace-culture-cd.