Turning Diversity into a Diversity of New Ideas

A blog on the Huffington Post, The Harsh Reality of Diversity in Today’s Workplace, on the continuing lack of women and minorities in leadership roles (and in any kind of role for some minorities) brings to mind an interesting question. The question is whether it’s enough to add more women and minorities to your company without also finding ways to hear and benefit from their ideas.

The blog notes that non-white people, including Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, and Native Americans, comprise just 18.3 percent of directors on corporate boards of 69 Fortune 100 companies highlighted in the 2014 Corporate Diversity Study. African-American women represent just 4.2 percent of directors of boards examined in the study, and 41 of the 69 companies in the study do not have a single African-American woman on their board of directors.

Adding a greater diversity of people to companies and leadership boards is ethically the right thing to do, but it’s also a smart thing to do from a profitability standpoint. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, white children in America will be in the minority by 2020. That means we’re quickly heading to a marketplace where the likes and dislikes of whites will be less important to corporate profitability than the preferences of non-white groups.

Women have always comprised a slight majority of the population due to their longer lifespans, but it’s only been in recent decades that the female perspective has been recognized as important to purchasing decisions. With more women in the workplace, and more women serving as the breadwinners of households, companies that don’t have women in leadership positions will be at a tactical disadvantage.

No matter how empathetic and well read a person is, it’s impossible to say what a person of a different background really thinks about a new product the company is considering launching, and which kinds of marketing strategies are best for reaching members of a community different from their own.

Adding more women and minorities to your payroll and leadership ranks is the first step to making better informed product development and marketing strategy decisions, but the second, and equally important, step is finding ways to make the voices of those minorities heard. What role do trainers and Human Resources executives play in creating platforms for a more diverse set of voices to be heard, and seriously considered, when important decisions need to be made?

The best ideas often come from the ground up, from the people who work directly with your customers or clients. So, if I were an HR or Learning professional, I would advocate for an internal social network, or other online platform, that would allow any person at the company, regardless of level or background, to submit ideas and commentary to the C-suite about better ways to serve customers. It’s important to both recognize and reward these ideas, but conversely, also to give those who submit ideas the option of remaining anonymous. There are many employees, and even some in leadership, who are timid about saying there is something their company does that could be done a lot better in a different way. A platform that encourages, rewards, and allows for optional anonymity is a great way to ensure you get an ongoing diverse set of ideas.

You also could have annual, or biannual, contests for new ideas in which employees are rewarded for business ideas that end up being implemented, and deliver an impressive return on investment. The important point is to allow anyone in the company, regardless of level, to enter the contest, and to hide from the judges the identities of those submitting to avoid bias, and to ensure that nothing but the quality of the idea is considered.

Just as employees at the entry- and mid-level can have their ideas overlooked or squashed for reasons of bias, women and minorities at the leadership level also can experience disregard for ideas and opinions. One way to get around this common pitfall is to plan leadership meetings well in advance, and have participants submit ideas and proposed strategies with their identities kept anonymous. Not only will you ensure that the best ideas rise to the surface, rather than ideas of the people who are just well positioned politically, but you will ensure an active role for every leader. There’s nothing more disheartening than leadership ranks filled with women and minorities who are there as showpieces, rather than as respected contributors.

What is the Learning professional’s role in helping a company bring the most diverse set of ideas to light, and ensuring that no voices or ideas are overlooked or only given a perfunctory consideration?

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