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Commentary: Diversity makes good business sense

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 1, 2008 - Many people think that diversity in the business world is solely a numbers game. It can be thought of that way, but a program that only looks at numbers usually fails. The first step is to define your terms. What do you mean by diversity? It is often helpful to have a broad definition, which can be broken down to focus on specific areas. For example, if you define diversity as “all the ways in which we differ,” you will need to then provide specifics that are relevant for your group.

It might also be important to examine what aspects of diversity are represented in your community, potential customers, vendors, etc. These are populations that often go unexamined when discussing diversity. Increasing diversity in these areas might not immediately affect your bottom line but, over time, can make a real impact.

Training is essential. Training programs not only educate and motivate but foster growth. In my consulting, I have found that some people refuse to get on board with diversity initiatives, because they don’t see the relevance. Take race for example. I often hear: “Race is no longer an issue,” or “I’m colorblind.” However, quality training can provide evidence for the unfortunate fact that (1) race continues to influence the distribution of wealth and resources in our country and (2) the construct affects us all to varying degrees.

During one training, I showed a film of two professional discrimination testers - one White and one Black. Hidden cameras followed them as they attempted to get a job, buy a car, find a place to live and shop in the mall. Basically, the Black man experienced overt and covert racial discrimination.

For example, the White man went to look at an apartment and was given the master key. When the Black man came, the apartment was “unavailable since a woman put a hold on it that morning.” This film was an “ah-ha” moment for several White males in the training.

What struck one of the men the most was that these instances were real and unambiguous. He had heard people complain about discrimination but assumed that they were hypersensitive, overreacting or misinterpreting the situation. These instances he witnessed were occurring, but without the cameras we would have had no way of knowing due to their subtlety.

Beyond the discrimination experienced by the Black man, the trainee also became aware of ways he might have been given an advantage in unknowing and unsolicited ways. He left that training more aware of the ways in which race influences daily experiences.

Once people get on board, through education, personal revelation or simple economics, they can begin moving forward with initiatives. Nothing is worse than individuals feeling as if diversity is being shoved down their throats. If you push ahead without buy-in, you are in for resistance and push-back. It’s no small feat, but it is essential to make it clear that diversity is a shared goal that cuts across a company.

One way this can be done is to have leadership show the value of diversity by acknowledging (through awards or simple recognition) individuals who have engaged in company initiatives or developed new ways to foster interaction across lines of difference. It does not take long for employees to gravitate toward behavior that is being consistently rewarded.

If you are interested in examining company models, numerous options exist, but consider Kraft Foods or Aflac. They are clear about valuing diversity and making it something that is not only encouraged but rewarded from entry-level to upper management. Both companies also have employee councils that provide support and develop initiatives geared toward various groups. Still not convinced? More than 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies have diversity initiatives. It’s an important investment.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.

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