Diversity—It’s Hard to Achieve More Than Lip Service

Achieving workplace diversity isn’t easy—even for global powerhouses like Google. “We’re not where we want to be when it comes to diversity,” Google observes in a January 2014 demographic report, which reveals that 70% of Google’s employees are male and 61% are white.

“It is hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts,” the report notes. “All of our efforts, including going public with these numbers, are designed to help us recruit and develop the world’s most talented and diverse people.”

For guidance in diversity planning, we turned to BLR’s new HR Playbook: HR’s Game Plan for the Future.

A Broad View of Diversity

As the face of the American workplace changes, some employers see diversity as just another factor to manage, like changes in the cost of raw materials. Other employers see diversity as an asset to be used to the organization’s advantage.

Some look at it as a matter of creating a workplace that “looks like” your city or neighborhood. In other words, say that 25% of the people in your city are white, 25% are Asian-American, 25% are African American, and 25% are Hispanic. Then, you’ll want about 25% of your employees to be white, another 25% Asian-American, and so on.

But diversity isn’t only about an organization’s looks or its racial composition. Diversity is really about creating a company culture in which all employees can work together courteously and effectively— whatever their race, ethnicity, age, sex, religion, physical capabilities or disabilities, national origin, sexual orientation, personality quirks, talents, problem-solving styles, and a host of other factors that make people unique individuals.

The bottom line is that your diversity initiatives should ultimately shape a company that respects and values employees of all backgrounds and description, allows them to participate fully in its business, and that benefits from the diversity of backgrounds.

A caveat—Diversity isn’t the same as affirmative action. There are laws that require certain employers to adopt affirmative action programs, but there’s no law that requires employers to have diversity programs. Even if everyone in your workplace had similar ethnic backgrounds and was about the same age, broadly defined diversity efforts could help by enabling you to create a workplace in which everyone feels empowered to do his or her best work.

Scenario: Workplace Diversity in Action

The following example shows how awareness of diversity can help a company in which employees seem to have everything in common.

Jose, a Mexican American, started a vegetarian food business 2 years ago. All his employees are about his age, all are Mexican Americans, and all grew up in the same neighborhood. Because his employees seem so similar, Jose doesn’t pay much attention to diversity programs.

But he spends lots of time on workplace conflicts. Hector joined a new church and wants to convert everybody. Arturo, an atheist, fights back and needles Hector. Amanda, a “neat nut,” hates sharing an office with messy Olivia. Production manager Ramon is gay and ready to quit over Hector’s antigay “sermons.” Despite all this, business is booming and Jose wants to expand.

In order to do this, Jose must build a hiring plan that values diversity, in the broad sense of valuing employees with a variety of experiences, backgrounds, and personalities. This will, in turn, help Jose create a healthier, more effective organization:

  1. A diversity program would help Jose broaden his search for new employees. The more potential applicants, the greater his chances of finding the best people for the company. The better the employees, the more likely that expansion will succeed, and the company will prosper.
  2. Employees from outside Jose’s usual circles would be able to alert him to new markets and new business opportunities. It’s also likely that they’d contribute fresh ideas to the company.
  3. Jose and the rest of the company would become more aware of differences in personalities and problem-solving skills and how they affect the company. They could then learn how to use those differences more effectively, making the company stronger.
  4. A diversity program would raise Jose’s awareness of potential legal problems. Hector, for example, is a religious-discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen.
  5. A diversity program could help Jose’s company defend itself if it ever were to be sued over alleged discrimination.
  6. Diversity is all about creating the kind of business in which everyone is valued for who they are. Treating employees with respect builds loyalty to the company. Happy, loyal employees tend to be productive employees. Turnover drops, even in high-turnover service businesses. (For example, employee turnover at the high-end Starbucks coffeehouse chain, which has built a strong culture in which employees are valued as individuals, is a fraction of turnover at other similar establishments.)
  7. People treated respectfully feel free to offer ideas and suggestions. The more ideas and suggestions, the more likely one of them turns out to be the home-run idea that pushes a company into the big leagues.

Happy employees tell their friends about their workplace. When word gets out that your company is a good one to work for, potential employees seek you out. Odds are that they’ll be the same kind of high performers as your current workforce. And part of the reason for their high performance is that they’re treated well. It’s just the opposite of what happens in all too many companies that don’t treat their employees well (which is that good employees leave and don’t recommend those companies to their friends).

In short, a diverse organization tends to be a productive, respectful, legally compliant workplace. Employees are more productive when they know they’ll be treated with respect, because more of their energies will focus on the business rather than on personal issues. And you and your department will need to spend far less of your limited time on brokering peace among bickering coworkers.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, specific suggestions for developing your diversity program, plus an introduction to BLR’s new HR Playbook: HR’s Game plan for the Future.

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