How to Encourage and Leverage Diversity

A few weeks ago I found myself reading a job posting that had been recommended to me. This job was similar to the one I have today – eerily similar, in fact – but was with an organization roughly twice the size and with more potential for growth. My curiosity piqued, I began to do a little research on the company. In all respects this appeared to be a healthy, stable firm that had experienced steady and sustainable growth over the course of its 140+ years. The company had a warm and inviting feel to it with a loyal base of employees and customers. All good things.

While exploring the company’s website I stumbled across a page containing very brief bios of every board member and executive team member, complete with photos. That was where my research into this company ended, and I promptly deleted the email with the job recommendation in it.

What happened? Simple: of the 31 people who were in the top level leadership of this company (yes, I went back and counted), 27 of them were male, and all 31 of them were white. No diversity whatsoever. None. In 2018 that is not a sign of a healthy organization with its finger on the pulse of the country. What I saw was suggestive of a strong sense of organizational identity, but that that identity was one which would be resistant to change and continually limited by homogeneity of ideas and perspectives, in addition to being out of touch with its customers, and probably its front-line employees.

That any large or medium-sized firm could still not understand in 2018 why diversity is important is, honestly, a bit beyond me. I genuinely think that most high level executives today get this. What they don’t get, however, is how to encourage and leverage that diversity. And that I think many of us can relate to because the HR field as a whole, which is usually responsible for diversity and inclusion efforts in an organization, also has not got a good grasp on how to do this well.

I know that’s a bit of a sweeping statement to make, but it is also true. Many, many HR professionals have been taught that encouraging diversity is a matter of putting a policy in place, meeting EEOC guidelines, and offering a few diversity workshops. The fact is that these efforts, while well-intentioned, do not accomplish the goal they are designed to achieve. For many organizations this actually accomplishes the perpetuation of the mythical colorblind ideal. Meaning: organizations often prefer to “treat everyone the same” and assimilate differences into a single culture, pretending that differences don’t matter. But ask yourself this: what is the dominant culture in the vast majority of U.S. businesses – the one that everyone is expected to assimilate into?

Hopefully you now see the problem.

Differences Matter

The real key to making diversity efforts stick, and to helping members of minority groups feel like they truly belong, is inclusion. You can’t just build a diverse organization and pat yourselves on the back. You also have to make everyone feel like they are a part of what you have built, and that their differences are welcomed, not ignored.

So how do you get there? That, friends, is the hard part. Diversity and inclusion experts have tried a number of different methods over the years, the vast majority of which have been met with varying degrees of failure. The methodology that seems to be the most consistently effective, unfortunately, is also the most time consuming and expensive. In organizations where this already a relatively strong sense of diversity and genuine desire to be inclusive, some experts have had success with simply bringing together people of different backgrounds and letting them work together. But I suspect this situation is not very common and so the simple solution would not work in most companies. For everyone else, the most effective solution seems to be focusing on the individual, especially managers.

Past research has shown that people are most open to embracing the differences of others when they have a better understanding of their own cultural identities, which can include gender identity, cultural-ethnic group, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, etc. The better we understand these things about ourselves – their history, their meaning, and so forth – the better we are able to recognize and embrace differences between ourselves and others. There are a lot of ways to build that understanding, via focus groups, workshops, reading, mentoring, and so on. But they all take time and energy. The investment is worth it, however.

Another key element in building your inclusion efforts is the establishment of trust and high-quality relationships between managers and their teams. This is true not just of direct reporting relationships, but also of middle and senior leaders and the larger organizations – departments, divisions, etc. – that report up to them. Leaders must take the time and effort to establish trust and quality relationships with the people in their area of responsibility, and with their key stakeholders. Clearly, I don’t mean that every EVP should be out there getting to know every single person in their division. That isn’t always practical. But you can take time on a regular basis to get out and talk with people, to listen to what they have to say, and to show that you are interested in their input and in them as human beings. Demonstrating that kind of humanity will go a long way in building trust, which in turn will help build feelings of inclusion.

This is just a high level view of what can be done to initiate an effective inclusion program, and obviously my perspective is colored by my own cultural identity. So I am curious: what else have you seen that works? Are there programs you have seen in other organizations that were effective at building a truly diverse, inclusive organization where everyone – regardless of cultural identity – felt they belonged?

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