The House That Diversity Built

To foster identification of an organization’s diversity mission and vision in strategic planning sessions, I often ask, “If you could wave a magic wand and achieve your diversity objectives instantaneously, what would be the results?”

Stated differently, I am asking, “What are you ideally trying to achieve?” Without clarity about this question, attaining success is difficult. If you do not know where you wish to go, you are less likely to get there. Yet, one chief human resource officer I spoke to said, “We have so many activities and programs, I sometimes lose track of what we are trying to do.”

What follows are selected characteristics of a house built for workforce diversity. I hope this will prompt organizations to enhance clarity about their own diversity aspirations. Ideally, the house built for diversity would do the following:

• Adopt as its overarching diversity objective the creation of an environment that naturally empowers all to contribute to their full potential in pursuit of overall organizational objectives. Naturally means that no special arrangements will be needed.

• Pursue demographic and behavioral differences and similarities and be prepared for the related tensions and complexities. Many enterprises focus only on demographic diversity.

• Focus on diversity and diversity management — capability to make quality decisions in the midst of differences and similarities.

• Establish a diversity mission, vision and strategy to support its overall mission, vision and strategy.

• Base decisions on requirements that are essential to achieve the overall mission and vision as opposed to preferences — the way we like things to be; traditions — the way things have always been; and conveniences — the way it is easiest to do things — all of which may not be requirements. All decisions regarding the three core questions would be driven by mission requirements.

• Foster a mindset that supports diversity aspirations.

• Act to build a culture — basic assumptions along with manifestations — that supports diversity aspirations. Since, in many settings, cultural assumptions were imbued throughout the organization by white males when few others played major roles, it is reasonable to ask if these cultures will work for a heterogeneous population with multiple demographic groupings.

• Ensure that human resource policies and practices not only do not discriminate with respect to any demographic group, but also empower all employees. Avoiding discrimination alone is not sufficient.

• Foster appropriate mutual adaptation between new entrants and the organization. In the house built for diversity, both parties adapt to meet requirements.

• Seek to push diversity management down as far as possible in the organization to ensure decision-making occurs where the requisite information rests. This is a major difference between affirmation action and diversity management. A central office can drive affirmative action and insist on compliance. With diversity management, a central office can facilitate development of diversity management capability throughout the organization, but the actual practice must be done by managers and individual contributors.

• Act to minimize the use of divisive jargon. Such jargon highlights white males versus non-white males. Examples include “minorities,” “diverse employees” and “ethnicities.” In the last presidential election, for some analysts, “demographics” emerged as meaning all but white males. To foster unity, employees who are not white males must first be seen as employees; correspondingly, non-white male citizens must first be referenced as Americans. So embedded is divisive jargon into our culture and our organizations that many fail to see that it often reflects condescension and confers a “less than” second-class status for non-white males.

Organizations, like individuals, are highly diverse. Given your organization’s diversity aspirations, your ideal characteristics may differ significantly. What matters is that you know what they are.

I urge CEOs and CDOs to define success so they can more effectively pursue it. Without this clarity, diversity efforts can become like a rudderless ship shifting with the currents, regardless of where its occupants wish to go.