Look around at your coworkers. How would you describe them? Do you observe much variety? Consider not only their physical traits but also their interests, skills, family backgrounds, physical abilities, religion, and other characteristics. Is your organization diverse? If not, it may be missing business opportunities at every turn.
Diversity isn’t just about employing people from different races or ethnic groups. It’s about a much wider range of differences. And prioritizing diversity in the workplace isn’t just about being fair. It’s
about being competitive.
Why? When a company builds a reputation for valuing differences, it attracts — and keeps — more
talented employees. These individuals know that the company will appreciate and use the unique backgrounds, knowledge, and skills they bring to the table. And the employees can then use their differences to generate fresh ideas and identify new business opportunities.
For example, a pharmaceutical company in the United States had poor sales of an anticoagulant drug in the Latino market — until a Latino employee noticed that the instructions for the drug were printed only in English. When the company implemented this employee’s suggestion to print educational materials in Spanish, sales improved.
Diversity also helps companies do more than just generate new ideas at home. Employees with diverse backgrounds can enable organizations to tap into global markets as well. And with today’s emphasis on globalization, that makes good business sense.
So, if you look around at your organization and see little variety, you’d probably benefit from adding diversity. But first, how do you recruit diverse candidates? And once you have them on board, how
do you reap the benefits promised by diverse teams?
Let’s see how you could address these two questions in practice. We’ll focus first on how to recruit
diverse candidates. To think in more detail about this challenge, we’ll use the example of Layla, a marketing manager at a consumer products company.
Layla has been asked to lead a special team charged with selling her company’s products to consumers with food allergies. She knows that such allergies are more prevalent in some groups than others. For example, lactose intolerance is high in African American and Latino populations in the United States. And peanut and other nut allergies are growing more common among children.
Layla knows that her team is fairly homogenous. She’s worried that without a more diverse group, she’ll have difficulty fulfilling her team’s mission. But in the past, Layla has had difficulty recruiting
people of color and working mothers — two groups she thinks would help her team significantly on
this project. How can she recruit these diverse candidates?
For starters, Layla could think about how people in the groups she wants to target generally gather information and news. That way, she can put her job postings where people will see them. For example, there may be some ethnic radio stations, targeted news Web sites, local newspapers, and online job boards catering to specific populations that would make good candidates for her postings. But purchasing targeted media spots may not be enough. Layla should also ask coworkers and friends if they know qualified individuals who fit her desired profile. In addition, she might recruit from
universities with a high ratio of women, people of color, and other diverse groups. To use this strategy, she could have representatives from her department participate in career-day activities and multicultural initiatives at these schools.
Once Layla identifies promising candidates, she may need to "sell" her company to them — that is,
convince them that they’re making the right choice in joining her organization. To do so, she could point out some of the advantages of working for the organization that may appeal to these candidates. These advantages might include special assignments that enable employees to strengthen and broaden their skills. They may also include company policies that help employees balance their work and personal lives — such as telecommuting, flexible health and dependent care spending accounts, elder- or child-care assistance, or domestic-partner benefits.
Layla applies these and other recruiting strategies and hires several new employees from a variety of backgrounds. But as the weeks pass, she notices that her new team isn’t generating the fresh ideas she had hoped for. Layla needs to address the second challenge related to diversity: how to reap the
benefits promised by diverse teams.
One way managers can get fresh thinking from diverse employees is to foster an inclusive
environment. In an inclusive environment, managers welcome the many differences that distinguish
their employees. They also leverage those differences to define new goals, improve processes, and boost team productivity. As employees see their unique characteristics generating positive business results, they feel valued precisely for what makes them special. Consequently, their commitment to their jobs — and their companies — grows.
To foster an inclusive environment, Layla will need to think about how her team members’ diverse qualities could support business goals. In this case, the organization wants to expand into new markets by selling its products to customers who are concerned about food allergies. The company is particularly interested in marketing to African Americans and Latinos, as well as to parents of all ethnicities.
But Layla shouldn’t assume that each employee knows how his or her unique talents and background can help support these goals. So, she might say something like, “I need you to draw on your
experiences as representatives of these groups to generate ideas for ad campaigns and promotions that may appeal to our target customers.”
To create a truly inclusive environment, however, Layla should also look for opportunities for her diverse employees to contribute to mainstream business goals — not just those that target customers
with similar backgrounds to their own. There may be projects related to companywide priorities —
such as improving a business process or analyzing competitors’ moves — that her employees could
handle skillfully. If Layla excluded employees from those kinds of opportunities, they may conclude that she’s pigeonholing them or exploiting them as tokens.
By embracing differences among her subordinates and showing how this diversity can help the company reach a wide range of strategic goals, Layla sends the message that she values each employee's contributions. Equally important, she gives every subordinate opportunities to generate valuable business results.