Does Everybody (or Anyone) Look Like You at Your Company?

When I was in college at the University of Alabama in the mid-1990s, many of the sororities had a certain look—so much so that some said they could guess just by looking at a young woman the sorority she belonged to. One, for instance, had almost all blond, blue-eyed members, who favored wearing pearls with nearly everything.

In the corporate world, despite the push toward diversity, there probably are companies that are similar. Most of these companies probably don’t have predominantly blond, blue-eyed, pearl-wearing women, but there could be a certain look and background common to most of their employees. In some cases, that certain look simply means male, and in others, it could mean male or female but Caucasian. Or it could mean male or female and any race, but from an upper- or upper-middle-income background and Ivy League university.

I saw a sadly funny/ironic article recently in the publication, Quartz, that highlighted the issue of diversity in the workplace, and what not to do, “How to Maintain a Predominantly White Workplace.” The piece, by Leniece Flowers Brissett, outlines steps to take that lead you away from diversity, and she presents it as if a company, in fact, did not want to diversify. It was intended to be ironic, but I kept thinking that there are executives who will take it at face value—as a guide to maintaining the kind of company they want. Despite the research showing the benefits of a diverse workforce, some companies are hesitant to give it a try. That partly may be due to prejudice, and partly to what they perceive as the challenges of a diverse workforce—getting people of disparate backgrounds to bond and come together as a team. There also may be a misguided fear that what a company thinks of as its homogenous, conservative customer base will not want to interact with a company staffed by people who don’t look and talk like they do.

Flowers Brissett notes that companies often apply a rigorous, metrics-based approach to monitoring and improving every corporate initiative except diversity. The push for a diverse workplace can be presented as a feel-good initiative, rather than one that is tied to a company’s likelihood of long-term success and profitability. For that reason (or plain prejudice and a desire to maintain the status quo), the same metrics that are applied to other facets of corporate improvement are not used to measure whether the company is making real progress toward becoming more diverse.

Another point Flowers Brissett brings up, which is used to push against the effort to create a diverse workforce, is the meritocracy argument. This is a red herring, as those in favor of a diverse workforce don’t argue that unqualified people should be hired; just that those with as high qualifications as anyone else, but from a background that differs from the majority of the company’s employees, be given equal consideration. In some cases, if all else is equal—both applicants are equally qualified—a background that differs from the majority of the company’s other employees could be seen as an asset. But only if all else is equal. That seems like a worthwhile approach to me, as a person from a different background often brings a perspective that can help better market the company and better sell its products and services to customers.

Once you have people of diverse backgrounds, and ethnicity on your payroll, the next step is to be open to their contributions. Flowers Brissett notes the “great” job you will do to maintain a homogenous workforce if you are less tolerant of the contributions of your minority employees than you are of others. She points out the tendency to describe minority employees as “aggressive” or “hostile” in performance reviews. It could be a case of projection, I thought to myself, with a manager projecting his or her own feelings of aggression and hostility onto the minority employee, who was only doing his or her job. It also could be that the minority employee was expressing a viewpoint and ideas the manager has never before experienced, and thus is afraid of.

What is the Learning professional’s role in creating a diverse workforce? What are some exciting, quantitatively proven methods for building a workforce that looks more like our changing population?

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