Diversity for Real

Fred Mael
Baltimore SmartCEO Magazine and Washington SmartCEO Magazine, August 2006

You are told that diversity makes good business sense. There is some evidence to back this up: In a survey of Fortune 100 HR executives that mirrors previous research findings, top business reasons for diversity included better utilization of talent, increased marketplace understanding, enhanced creativity, and increased quality of team problem-solving. In a 1997 Academy of Management Executive article, Gail Robinson and Kathleen Dechant lay out additional ways to establish a business case for managing workforce diversity based on reduced costs, business growth potential, enhanced leadership effectiveness, and building global relationships. Here’s the problem: Your company may be “compliant” with diversity guidelines and yet still be failing at being diverse. If you don’t understand what you are trying to achieve and how to achieve it, you may gain none of the benefits of diversity. For an example, we can turn to a presidential administration that aimed for diversity and ended up somewhere else.

“Looking Like America”

President Bill Clinton started his administration with a commitment to make the White House “look like America”. There were to be women, African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities in the administration in the same proportions as they were in the populace. Although his intentions may have been noble, he actually achieved something different. As James Wall wrote in 1993:

It was not surprising, then, that following his first round of appointments some critics suggested that Clinton’s America seems to be dominated by rich lawyers who graduated from Harvard or Oxford… Diversity is a rich resource when viewed as the mysterious birth of the new through the coming together of the different. But used merely as a tool to correct a power imbalance, diversity becomes just another means of shifting political control among competing groups.

Shortly afterwards, a US News and World Report article in 1995 said that:

The dearth of different voices, say critics … is the point. Simply hiring African-Americans, Hispanics, women, gays and disabled people does not guarantee that a broad range of political opinions will be represented. Indeed, one insider thinks loyalty to the president and connection to the Clintons from elite venues like the first couple’s alma maters of Yale and Wellesley impress the president and Mrs. Clinton more than race or ethnicity… So while the administration boasts top officials from liberal enclaves like Madison, Wisconsin, Cambridge, MA, and Berkeley, there are no Midwestern white ethnics in the cabinet.

The president may have achieved numerical parity, but not necessarily diversity. As an influential person in your own organization, you need to understand the difference.

Diversity versus Anti-DiscriminationThe press, government agencies, and corporations may use the term diversity to be synonymous with lack of discrimination against protected groups such as women and minorities. In truth, the two differ in their purposes. The concept of diversity typically focuses on diversity of thought, viewpoints, or experiences that come from myriad sources. The primary goals of diversity are to benefit an organization by providing many ways to look at issues and problems; to avoid the groupthink that often occurs in homogeneous groups; and to respond to and be aware of the needs and desires of the widest possible group of constituents (such as customers) and stakeholders. Diversity’s goal is to enhance the functioning of the collective, such as the company or the organization.

Not being exclusive and discriminatory in hiring serves a different goal. In those cases, the goal is to protect the needs of the individuals or perhaps the members of that minority group. Avoiding discrimination might lead to diversity, but it depends how representative of their defined group the hired minorities are. Trying to achieve diversity simply by hiring members of legally protected minorities will almost never be enough, especially if the values and experiences of that group’s representatives closely mirror those of their (white, male) peers. Simply being female or Hispanic does not ensure diverse views if one has the same upbringing, schooling, and work experience as the rest of the workforce.

If you really want to achieve diversity, you will need to find people with different views about things that affect how you run your business. That is, the goals and typical market segments of your business define to a certain extent who is part of the “in crowd’ and who needs to be brought in to make things more diverse and help you see other points of view. What would make someone else’s company usefully diverse may be irrelevant to your company and not improve any aspect of your effectiveness. Having more minorities might make your workplace more diverse. Avon, Maybelline, USA Today, and Dupont are notable examples of companies that were able to increase sales to minorities by putting African-Americans and Hispanics in charge of marketing to those sectors of consumers. It’s even possible that more males or whites are needed to make your business more diverse. The important point is that divergent thinking is usually what matters, not simply looking different. In particular, the strongest research showing better decision making and creativity as a result of diversity involves non-homogeneous views, rather than demographic variety. Shaking up the demographics in your company has a good chance of adding new perspectives – but it might not, and it’s not the only way.

A Stymied Attempt at DiversityThe Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) is an example of a good faith attempt to inject diversity into major societal structures that has been harmed, ironically, by self-appointed champions of diversity. As described by military historian Michael Neiberg in his book Making Citizen Soldiers, there were two primary purposes of having military training on campus. One was to ensure that civilian values would enter the military via college graduates, and that a wider pool of applicants would enter military, so that US military leadership would not be dominated by any regional, familial, or sociological castes. The other was to expose college students to the vital role and the challenges of the US military, rather than sheltering them or even censoring their ability to interact with members of the military. However, beginning in the Vietnam era, many elite colleges such as Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Brown and Harvard banished ROTC from their midst. As a result, the number of ROTC students on campus has dropped from 268,000 in 1964 to about 50,000 recently – a decline of over 80%. It is pretty obvious that leftist academics, who are big exponents of their own definitions of diversity, want to ensure that the military and their college’s students are segregated from each other. The latest justification for excluding ROTC from campuses argues that the military’s policy on gays violates the schools’ nondiscrimination policies. Thus, rather than boycotting Congress or President Clinton for carving out the “don’t ask – don’t tell” policy, academics prefer to take it out on the military recruiters, weakening the country’s troop quality and strength and increasing societal divisions. This is a shameful excuse to oppose diversity when the excluded minority (military members) doesn’t serve the in-crowd’s goals.

Who to Invite to the Table

Assuming that you are sincere about diversity, there are a number of groups who you should seriously consider adding to your company. While it is usually illegal to specifically avoid hiring people because of these identifying characteristics, you aren’t required by law to have a requisite number or percentage of each of these groups. (However, you should keep abreast of cutting-edge legal decisions regarding age and disability, as this might be changing). You cannot vigorously recruit and select these people to the extent that you exclude more qualified candidates without these unique characteristics. However, if they are equally qualified, members of these groups are likely to provide input and perspective you may not already have. Here are four prime examples:

The disabledDespite the advent of laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); despite current and predicted shortages of qualified employees in the workplace, shortages that disabled workers are often qualified to fill; despite new solutions to many disability-related impediments, such as newer technology and telecommuting; and, despite higher rates of retention among the disabled – the disabled continue to be underutilized in the economy. Research by the Employer Assistance and Recruiting Network (EARN) continues to show that employers have misconceptions about disabled employees’ abilities and the costs of accommodations and fears about legal problems. Managerial and coworker stereotypes about the disabled and uneasiness in the presence of the disabled also leads to their exclusion. Busy, impatient people (especially your clients) lacking empathy don’t want to be bothered with people who talk, walk, or think a little slower. But besides for moral issues, keeping those with disabilities out of sight and mind leads to the loss of their perspective on the design and ease of use of products of services. If nothing else, by knowing what the disabled and chronically injured are able to use, you could make them your customers instead of shunting them off to specialty stores or forcing them to do without.

The elderly

Although many elderly employees cannot work the same hours they used to, they could bring a number of possible diversity values to your workforce. As members of a different generation (World War II pre-baby boomers or in some fields, even boomers), they represent a whole array of different values in addition to the different perspectives that come with age. If your business markets to older people, and if diversity really has value, then the elderly would be essential for their input on such things as the design of tools and appliances, packaging, and relevant marketing messages. As Mary Pipher notes in her book about the elderly (Another Country), we are educated to segregate the elderly, to their and our disadvantage. The elderly, even in cameo roles, can do much for your workforce by serving as mentors and allowing their values to seep into the collective mind.

The unattractive and overweight

Some companies’ desires to “look like America” go only so far. A healthy body of research going back to the 1970s showed that all things being equal, those who are more attractive will be more likely to get hired and promoted than those who are simply more “plain”. Add in facial or physical characteristics that are disfiguring or (to most people) unattractive, and one can find real barriers to being hired, especially for positions that require interacting with the public. Employers have their reasons: depending on what’s being sold, they want extensions of themselves to project vitality or glamour; perhaps they know that their clients make buying decisions based on their ability to interact with beauty; maybe they just buy the deep-seated belief that everybody else’s physical imperfections really indicate low will-power, low self-esteem, or something worse. The problem is that your prospective customers have the same imperfections – how will you understand what they need and want if you never get input from them? How will know if you are offending them, reinforcing the same messages that they don’t belong out in public except in a parka? Maybe you are counting on unattractive consumers deluding themselves endlessly into wearing what doesn’t fit, eating what doesn’t help, and buying furnishings or programs that will compensate for their looks. Some do – the rest would no doubt appreciate your knowing how to market to them with respect, something you can achieve by letting them work for you.

The overtly religious

On the surface, religion is supposed to have nothing to do with work and should be no more significant than political party affiliation or one’s favorite sports team. In reality, people who, for sincere spiritual reasons, eat, dress, pray, recreate or talk differently than the majority, are likely to express different values and priorities. If nothing else, they are willing to make sacrifices of convenience and sometimes of income in order to be faithful to their ideals. This cannot help but result in a somewhat different view of things. They may also have a heightened understanding of how their own and other subgroups may react to certain advertising messages, images, and implicit values. If you seek diversity, including people who actually act differently might be a good idea.

Getting Diverse

To get compliant, you just have to recruit people who fit certain boxes and hire them. To bring diversity into your organization may be harder. If you and your close associates do all the hiring, you will be prone to be attracted to those who think like you and are appealing to you. To bring new views in, you may have to have someone else do part of your screening process, or make a few leaps of faith. You may have to look in the mirror and remind yourself many times that your clients won’t hold it against you if all your employees aren’t quite as youthful, attractive, healthy, and “normal” as you or them. Or, that even though some will hold it against you, you won’t play the game. That is, if you really believe that your company will gain by being diverse for real.

Fred Mael (www.maelconsulting.com) is an organizational psychologist who does consulting in areas such as talent retention, organizational culture, and performance management, as well as executive and work/life coaching. This article appeared in the August 2006 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazines (www.smartceo.com).