How Culturally Diverse Is Your Company?

The older you are, the more stuck in your ways you become is the classic belief about how people evolve—or stop evolving at a certain point. So if you grew up in a homogenous community, it’s likely that when you’re a middle-aged, or older, person, you will still feel most comfortable in homogenous settings, including the workplace.

Creating a diverse workplace in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender is hard enough. Now, I’ve realized, it’s also important to have a company that embraces cultural—and financial—diversity. In other words, do all of your employees, regardless of race and ethnic group, look like they come from the same neighborhood?

A new study from leadership development and training company Fierce shows that it’s the youngest employees who may be leading the way in creating a more diverse workforce. “More than 40 percent of survey respondents believe their organization would benefit from greater diversity. This number increases to 55 percent among those ages 18 to 29, but decreases to just 30 percent of those 60-plus. A clear disconnect exists here between generations, and one that is important for organizations to address head-on,” Fierce states in a press release. “Research confirms that Millennials are more inclusive than previous generations as a whole, in both their personal and professional lives. This generation embraces the fact that diverse perspectives lead to greater innovation, and enjoy working with colleagues who have different backgrounds, and think differently, who challenge them to look at obstacles in a different light.”

Does the “different light” come from cultural and financial differences, in addition to differences of race and ethnic group? Could young people also be leaders in getting companies to be more culturally diverse?

How comfortable are you with diversity—with being with people different than yourself? I like to think I am. But when my company moved its office from the gentrified, posh SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, NYC, to an area of the city, Midtown West/Garment District, near one of our two large train stations, Penn Station, I was dismayed. I’m still dismayed because, culturally, the people I see on the streets are not like me. I could say it’s for another reason, but, truthfully, I always breathe a sigh of relief on my walk home when I finally get to the West Village, the west part of Greenwich Village because I know I’m finally back to “civilization,” i.e., people like me—middle-class, mostly well-dressed young professionals. Our colors these days vary, but, culturally, the area downtown where I live is homogenous in its gentrification. It’s not the diversity of colors, or ethnic groups, that troubles me in my office’s new neighborhood. It’s that the people seem seedy and creepy. We even have a methadone clinic down the street from our office. It’s eye-opening for us culturally prejudiced people. That’s been the lesson of my office’s move. While I’m confident that I’m not a prejudiced person in terms of race or ethnic group, I think I’m culturally prejudiced, finding it hard to be happy with people with cultures different from my own. I’m not talking about celebrating different holidays from me, or eating different foods, but the level of gentrification, or un-gentrification, another person exhibits. If the person doesn’t act like a member of my gentrified tribe, I’m put off.

When thinking about diversity at a company, it’s important to go beyond the issues of race, ethnic group, and gender, and also ask how comfortable any of us are associating with, hiring, and working with, people from a different level of gentrification from our own (and that goes for people we’re not comfortable with because they’re more gentrified than us).

When your company creates a new product, or a new marketing campaign, you often want to reach a broad swath of potential customers. How do you ensure your teams of employees reflect our population, from those with slightly snooty perspectives to those with a more down-to-earth perspective? You probably would want both—the “cultural elite” who wants arugula in her sandwich at lunch and the man who just wants a ham and cheese sandwich. How do your products and marketing cater to both?

Next comes the question of whether all companies need to have employees of all backgrounds and perspectives. If you sell luxury products that only a person with much more than an average amount of disposable income could afford, do you still need a culturally diverse workforce? Or, in that case, is it OK to have a workforce composed entirely of people who come from the same neighborhoods where the majority of your customers live?

Marketing often is aspirational. You are showing people what they could have. If you’re creating aspirational marketing, who better to create it than a person who in the next 20 years may be able to consume your product, but isn’t there yet? If you market not just to those who currently can afford it, but those who may afford it in the next 20 or 30 years, you’re creating a customer base for the future. Employees who already live in the same neighborhoods of your luxury consumers might not be as capable of communicating the aspirational message. A culturally diverse workforce ensures that at least some of your employees are in the same boat as many of the people who may see, or hear, your marketing messages, but are not yet in a position to take you up on the offer—but they just may in 10, 20, or 30, years—or maybe much sooner—than that.

Do you have a culturally diverse workforce? Why is cultural diversity important to a company’s creation of products and services, and its marketing capabilities? How do you create a workforce that is in a prime position to help you plan for future growth?

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