Features, Strategy & Operations

Tuning Up Diversity

Many of you may remember Rodgers and Hammerstein’s iconic 1949 musical South Pacific and a song that rings as true today as it did nearly 70 years ago.

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Critics thought the message focusing on interracial relationships and tolerance was far too controversial for the musical stage. Southern legislators decried it as a Communist plot and a threat to the American way of life—however they defined it!

Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and author James Mitchener, on whose stories the musical was based, vociferously defended their radical lyrics and didn’t care if they sunk the production. The song had to stay in the show!

Dedicated to Diversity?

That’s commitment! Do you have the same level of dedication to your company’s diversity program?

At its core, diversity in any organization is not only a good thing, but essential in a global business environment that thrives on bringing in new ideas, experiences and perspectives. It creates a melting pot of knowledge that can help companies and employees respond to rapidly changing market conditions. In this context, diversity is a strength—not a weakness. A well-managed program can not only reduce discrimination lawsuits and throw a few lawyers out of business, but also increase marketing and recruitment opportunities.

Anyone considering developing or reimagining their diversity program certainly has to take a broad view, incorporating elements that not only include race, gender, religion and national origin, but also age and social status. Clearly, a difficult formula to develop, which is why most programs generally fail—a fact that some of you would happily dispute.

At the risk of losing friends, colleagues and respect as a journalist, I have to admit I have mixed feelings about the direction of corporate diversity programs—specifically the co-opting of the phrase by those with particular political or social agendas.

Dictating Correctness

In an effort to do the right thing, some companies, individuals and groups are using diversity to simply create a dictatorship of political correctness. But if you walk this path do you risk turning a noble idea into nothing more than reverse discrimination? Think of it this way: Is choosing someone because they are black, Hispanic, Asian, Muslim, transgender, gay, young, old, etcetera….etcetera, any better than choosing someone because they are white?

People knowledgeable in the social science of diversity will tell you that you can’t force the issue among the rank and file. There is an adjustment or orientation period during which employees get to know each other. It’s at this point that productivity might dip due to culture clashes and communication issues. This is not only a potential problem among employees but also with customer-facing positions. People need to feel comfortable with the person they are dealing with. This being the case the solution might be to pair customers with representatives of the same ethnic background and language skills. At the very least, train employees to be empathetic with others, regardless of cultural differences.

If you’re thinking that this is just another type of segregation—it’s not! Nor is it a legal pitfall. This is a form of “social integration” that works to the retailer’s advantage in enhancing the customer’s experience. That’s why many companies in Southwestern and Western states have a marked preference for bi-lingual customer service reps in order to better serve a burgeoning base of Spanish-speaking customers.

A Flocking Mess

However, creating a diverse workforce could have an opposite and detrimental impact. You can end up creating a birds-of-a-feather scenario in your organization, with employees of similar backgrounds and language creating cliques or exclusive social groups. Think back to your junior and senior high school days when the “cool kids” avoided contact with others in a form of self-segregation. In the business world, this only inhibits the knowledge, experience and cultural sharing that diversity can achieve. Cross-cultural diversity is essential because the “cool kids” are not who you think they are.

The challenge is for companies to play a role in managing diversity by implementing strategies that include everyone. But be aware that managing the situation has a different connotation. It’s not about just recognizing differences in people but celebrating those differences and the value they bring to the company in terms of creating dialogues and a safe place for people to express their opinions without cultural biases and prejudices. In other words, it’s about making people feel like they belong and having managers who understand the consequences of discrimination.

Reducing Turnover

Additionally, a more diverse workforce is likely to reduce a company’s employee turnover rates and costs since people are more likely to stay in an environment that values them and makes them feel comfortable. Meanwhile that diverse work force might also be a more qualified one since, as noted earlier, you are increasing the hiring pool which, in retail, is becoming rather shallow.

However, if you don’t focus on diversity in upper management and in the boardroom, other programs within a company will be short-lived or won’t get off the ground at all. By 2050, racial and ethnic majorities in the U.S. will disappear, according to some government and academic research. Statistics can be massaged and I hate vouching for anyone’s version of the future. However, it’s clear that boardrooms and the C-suite need to represent changing demographics. Currently people of color and women only represent about 14.5 percent and 18 percent, respectively, of corporate boards among Fortune 500 companies.

Show of Force

Overall, companies can look at several methods of putting themselves in a better position to address the future.

Mandatory diversity training for employees, supervisors and other managers is one way. But I have yet to see any organization that can force people to accept diversity. Even the federal government has had only modest success in this area despite the force of law. These kinds of training programs can also have unintended consequences if employees resent programs that make them feel less important than others, or overlooked in favor of employees or job applicants who may be less qualified but bring diversity to the organization. It can also have an impact on managers and human resource personnel who might feel their authority and judgment is being usurped in hiring or promotion decisions.

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In the end, the key is to foster an environment of mutual respect.

You can’t force diversity—Rodgers and Hammerstein were right. It has to be carefully taught!

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