A Return to Workplace Diversity

What is diversity?

According to the U. S. Department of Interior it is a term “…used broadly to refer to many demographic variables, including, but not limited to, race, religion, color, gender, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, education, geographic origin, and skill characteristics. America’s diversity has given this country its unique strength, resilience and richness.”

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Diversity is a term that seems to encompass so much it can be a bear for HR departments to tackle.  HR departments, understandably so, become real focused on ensuring that policies are EEO compliant and in accordance with every Federal nondiscrimination law, Executive Orders and Management Directives. 

What if we looked at diversity as an opportunity to enrich the lives of all employees instead of just a set of initiatives in place to force employees to appear to tolerate each others differences?  This line from the U.S. Department of Interior‘s definition is really telling of the philosophy we should adopt when addressing workplace diversity.  “America’s diversity has given this country its unique strength, resilience and richness.”

I have worked in the education industry for the past 11 years in higher education, K-12 education and as an educational services vendor.  What I have seen in K-12 school district’s during that time is a shift toward embracing what makes students different and sharing those positive cultural differences with the larger student population.  The district I live in and many surrounding districts have either branded themselves as dual language or offer dual language programs.  These programs take the idea of bilingual education one step further and provide an opportunity for student’s for whom English is their primary language to be fully immersed in another language through direct instruction in both languages from as early as Kindergarten.  In such a global marketplace, it’s a win-win for all.

My challenge to HR knowledge leaders is to apply the same philosophy to various workplace initiatives associated with diversity.  The common approach is to tell diverse groups of people to focus on their similarities. This approach is well intention and has its place because it helps us to realize that we are all just people with more in common than not. However, this perspective tends to minimize or make irrelevant the substantive characteristics of a person’s culture that truly makes them who they are.  These differences actually create a bottom line value to a progressive organization.

  1. Innovation/Creativity – If your company wants to maintain or establish a competitive edge, innovation is a must. Doing things the way they have always been done will leave you with a dying consumer base with no one to replace them.  When you employ and keep engaged a diverse workforce they bring unique perspectives that improve processes, products and service.
  2. Public Image – It isn’t copacetic to be exclusive anymore.  A growing number of Americans, especially the Millennial generation (roughly birth years 1978 to 2004) have very progressive values. They are characterized by the belief that religion should promote tolerance and social justice, are open and positive regarding immigration, believe in equal rights for gay Americans, believe government should take care of the needy and provide healthcare to all.  In less than a decade all of the Millennial will be adults and have their own buying power. It is most likely that this generation will only patronize businesses they believe share their values.
  3. Employee Retention – A recent study from the Center for American Progress estimates that the average cost for replacing an employee earning $50 K or less is 20% of the person’s annual salary.  Other research indicates that the cost of turnover can be as high as 50%-60% of the employee’s annual salary, depending on the position. (1) My own anecdotal evidence garnered from the myriad of exit interviews I’ve conducted leads me to believe fully that people rarely leave jobs for the stated reasons of better pay, closer to home, promotion etc. They leave co-workers. They leave bad bosses. They leave unwelcoming, non-inclusive work cultures.

It is a pretty common assumption that every company worth it’s salt has a workplace diversity initiative in place.  However, a 2010 study done by the Society for Human Resources Management suggests that American companies are actually trending backwards.  When respondents were asked, “Does your organization have in place any practices that address workplace diversity?” 68% said which is down 8% from the same survey conducting in 2005.

Take on the challenge.  Make cultural awareness in your workplace a priority. It advances the company and enriches your life experience in a positive way as long as you are open to it.

References:

1. Cascio, W.F. 2006. Managing Human Resources: Productivity, Quality of Work Life, Profits (7th ed.). Burr Ridge, IL: Irwin/McGraw-Hill. Mitchell, T.R., Holtom, B.C., & Lee, T.W. 2001. How to keep your best employees:  Developing an effective retention policy. Academy of Management Executive, 15, 96-108.

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