Get Your Entire Workforce Engaged in Diversity

Moving among corporations and their CDOs, I seldom see strategies designed to empower employees as diversity practitioners. When I do discover such a strategy, I do not find the necessary follow-up to assure it is applied and practiced sufficiently to build diversity management capability.

Instead, I often see employees who are only vaguely aware of their organization’s diversity initiatives, even when they support them. One manager told me quite confidently that his company strongly embraced diversity. When asked how he knew this, he responded, “I see a lot of memorandums on the topic.”

This employee and others in similar situations are doing relatively little to advance diversity and diversity management in their organizations. They may not have been asked to do anything, even as their enterprise wins awards for its efforts.

A contributing factor has been that CDOs often run their offices to support affirmative action, where the emphasis is on having a central compliance structure that keeps employees inclined to wander in line. As such, they place priority on racial, ethnic and gender representation and on harmonious relationships among workforce members.

Few CDOs have a goal to empower individual contributors to make quality decisions around diversity by ensuring they become competent diversity practitioners. I can understand why this is. Compliance can be achieved forthrightly through a centrally driven structure. However, a CDO cannot construct a compliance structure that encompasses the multiplicity of diversity issues that might prove challenging. Instead, he or she must empower employees at all levels to fashion appropriate responses and to learn from their decisions how best to achieve a diversity management capability.

This is a much more daunting task, yet it is essential that CDOs undertake it. They must empower others because they do not have answers for all the diversity challenges that can surface. They cannot function effectively as the primary repository for diversity expertise. They and their organizations are better served if pockets of expertise are developing throughout the enterprise.

Yet to date, most CDOs have been reluctant to begin creating these pockets even when invited to do so. For example, I heard one manager say to a CDO, “offshoring is a diversity issue.” The CDO agreed, but had no counsel to offer. Had the manager been empowered, he could have worked with likeminded employees to develop diversity management solutions around offshoring for themselves.

Why does this matter? Competent diversity practitioners at all levels would result in quality decision making where the requisite information resides. Issues would not have to be pushed up for resolution.

Asking all employees to become competent diversity practitioners would build on their life experiences to address diversity issues. Everyone has some level of experience in making decisions in the midst of tensions caused by differences and similarities. Once people understand this is the essence of diversity management, they can be empowered to use these experiences to their organization’s benefit.

How can CDOs empower development of diversity practitioners?

• Help employees understand that they already address diversity in a variety of life situations — sometimes poorly and sometimes effectively.

• Provide concepts, principles and decision-making frameworks that can be used to diagnose a situation and to develop solutions. Follow up by encouraging application and practice.

• Minimize offering “five to-do’s” at the end of training programs or issue discussions. These directives can encourage dependency on the CDO’s office.

• Be cautious about benchmarking. Benchmarking does not foster self-reliance with respect to diversity.

• Encourage employees to learn from diversity experiences within their family and community. These experiences can give meaning to concepts, principles and decision-making.

• When approached for advice, encourage employees to draw upon the concepts, principles and frameworks you have provided. Practice pushing decision making down where the relevant information is.

R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. is CEO of Roosevelt Thomas Consulting & Training, founder of the American Institute for Managing Diversity and author of World Class Diversity Management: A Strategic Approach. He can be reached at