Diversity: Celebrate Difference, Strengthen Performance

By Greg Levin

There is a big difference between accepting employee diversity and embracing it. While most corporations today claim to actively promote diversity in the workplace, relatively few effectively manage it and use it to full advantage. The problem, say numerous experts in the area of diversity and human resources, is that many organizations fail to incorporate the critical concept of inclusion into their diversity initiatives.

“Diversity describes the spectrum of human similarities and differences,” according to The Workplace Diversity Network, a Joint Project of Cornell University and the National Conference for Community and Justice. “It refers to the composition of people associated with the organization. Inclusion, on the other hand, describes the way an organization configures opportunity, interaction, communication, information and decision-making to utilize the potential of diversity.”

Corporate diversity initiatives that do not take inclusion fully into account rarely achieve the company’s desired results and are often little more than Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) or Affirmative Action (AA) policies, says Cecilia Chavez-Protas, president and CEO of Competitive Edge Consulting, Inc., an independent firm specializing in helping call centers create inclusive work environments to enhance performance. Effective diversity initiatives, she says, “focus on including everyone and excluding no one – they are qualitative. EEO/AA [policies], however, focus on the quantitative – counting how many [members] of the protected classes are hired and promoted based on legislation.”

Companies that have taken the time to develop holistic diversity and inclusion initiatives report very positive results. In a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) titled “The Impact of Diversity Initiatives on Bottom Line,” 91 percent of respondents said that their initiative helped their organizations maintain a competitive advantage; 79 percent of respondents said that it improved corporate culture; 77 percent said it helped recruit new employees; and 52 percent cited enhanced customer relations.

Chavez-Protas has seen the realization of such benefits first hand over the years during her work with numerous call center clients. “We are not a homogenous society – we have many differences that we must be responsive to — age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status, educational levels, etc. Call centers have the opportunity to embrace diversity both internally and externally. Those that do are better equipped to meet and exceed their employees’ and clients’ needs.”

Components of Effective Diversity/Inclusion Initiatives

With an increasing number of companies starting to view diversity and inclusion initiatives as business imperatives, certain core success factors have started to emerge. Several of these factors are highlighted in a landmark report, Best Practices in Achieving Workforce Diversity, by the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR) Diversity Task Force. The task force’s study team identified and carefully analyzed 65 companies, public and private, that were recognized for their efforts in achieving workforce diversity and inclusiveness. Some of the common success factors uncovered during the study include:

Leadership commitment. The study found that companies with the best diversity and inclusion initiatives have managers who “champion diversity by infusing it into all organizational processes and ensuring that diversity is integrated into the core values of the organization.” Diversity experts like Chavez-Protas wholeheartedly support the study’s findings. She says that too many managers treat diversity initiatives as a “‘flavor-of-the-month, versus a corporate culture ongoing revolution.” She adds that, to effectively gain buy-in from upper management, managers need to emphasize that a diversity initiative is “not just a nice thing to do, but the profitable thing to do. You need to present the business case behind the effort.”

Todd Campbell, manager of SHRM’s diversity initiative agrees that for a diversity initiative to succeed, it must be viewed as business incentive, not a “feel-good” issue. “The real reason for a diversity initiative succeeding is that you treat it like any other strategy,” says Campbell. “You have to make sure the CEO and top management are supportive of it.”

Diversity goals tied to key business processes. As stated in the NPR report, “Today’s leaders realize that in order to be effective, successful diversity planning must be aligned with and provide support for strategic business objectives and operational decisions.”

According to the study findings and leading diversity consultants, top companies when creating their diversity and inclusion initiatives tend to address such key areas as:

  • Recruiting and hiring. The focus here is generally on ensuring that the company employs qualified candidates that collectively represent a variety of cultural or ethnic groups, and that it draws from alternative labor pools such as workers with disabilities and mature workers. Successful companies are also careful that the hiring assessments and tests they administer do not favor any particular group over another.
  • Training and coaching. Organizations serious about diversity and inclusion tend to have initial and ongoing training programs that feature an eclectic mix of educational methods (such as traditional classroom training, role-playing, on-the-job instruction, and e-learning) that cater to a range of different learning styles and backgrounds.
  • Compensation. Diversity leaders strive to ensure equity and fairness with regard to employee pay. They seek to ensure that workers with the same or similar responsibilities and experience receive equal compensation, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, or gender, or sexual orientation.
  • Incentives and employee motivation. To effectively motivate and retain a diverse workforce, top companies create incentive programs that offer something for everyone. Recognition and rewards at these organizations take many forms (i.e., both team and individual-based, monetary and non-monetary incentives) while focusing on both quality and productivity results.
  • Employee development and advancement. Successful companies provide viable opportunities for employees of all types to continually improve and move on in the organization. Skill and career paths incorporate objectivity and are designed to be accessible to anybody seeking to take on new challenges.

Focused measurement and evaluation methods. The NPR report points out that holistic diversity initiatives involve not only the formation of specific goals tied to key business processes, but also solid methods for measuring the achievement of those goals. “A number of our benchmarking partners pointed out that one could not develop a successful diversity process without periodically assessing and evaluating the status and accomplishments of the process.”

Poor measurement tactics can destroy the best-laid diversity plans, says Terrence Simmons, a diversity consultant and CEO of Simmons Associates in New Hope, PA. “You want to be measuring the right thing. It is very disheartening when you’ve got a set of metrics that don’t really get to the heart of where you want to go.”

The key to effective measurement of diversity and inclusion effectiveness, according to The Workforce Diversity Network, is to understand and apply three key types of measures: process, outcome, and feedback. The NPR study findings confirm the importance of employee feedback about and involvement in diversity and inclusion initiatives. The study found that a number of leading organizations not only survey their staff, but also have established employee-led diversity councils, task teams, focus groups, affinity councils and networking groups.

Comprehensive diversity awareness training for all employees. Seeking feedback is not the only way in which companies directly involve employees in their diversity and inclusion initiatives. According to the NPR report, diversity awareness training is mandatory for all staff and managers at companies with the most effective initiatives. The general aim of such training is to help create a common understanding of diversity and the impact it has on job performance and morale.

But just because a company provides diversity awareness training doesn’t necessarily mean that the specific training they are providing is good or helpful, according to Mauricio Velasquez, president of Diversity Training Group in Reston,

  • The training has management’s support, but not their commitment.
  • The training is “off-the-shelf” and not custom designed to meet the unique needs of the particular organization.
  • The training is awareness-based, but provides no real skills.
  • The training has no formal follow-up.
  • Training is all the organization is doing.

Diversity Not Without Adversity

Experts and managers agree that creating and maintaining a diverse, inclusive workplace is no small task. The investment in time, the strategic challenges, and the potential for misunderstanding and conflict can seem daunting to many companies as they embark on their diversity initiatives. In fact, sometimes the whole process requires a change in traditional thinking, says Chavez-Protas.

“Treating [employees and clients] as they want to be treated is very different than the ‘Golden Rule’ of treating them as you want to be treated. You may insult or demean or not exceed their expectations. In order to treat them as they want to be treated, you must be willing to get to know their differences.”

But Chavez-Protas points out that “Diversity is effort, but well worth it. When difference intrigues us enough to want to know more about one another — because difference is viewed as an asset versus a liability – imagine the collaborative possibilities.”

Greg Levin is a freelance writer and the former editor of CallCenter Management Review published by ICMI. To learn more, call 410-267-0700.

Attributes of Inclusive Organizations

  • Demonstrated commitment to diversity.
  • Holistic view of the employees and the organization.
  • Access to opportunity.
  • Accommodation for diverse physical and developmental abilities.
  • Equitable systems for recognition, acknowledgement, and reward.
  • Shared accountability and responsibility.
  • 360-degree communication and information sharing.
  • Demonstrated commitment to continuous learning.
  • Participatory work organization and work process.
  • Recognition of organizational culture and process.
  • Collaborative conflict resolution processes.
  • Demonstrated commitment to community relationships.

Source: The Workplace Diversity Network

[From Connection MagazineApril 2004]

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