By Liz Ryan
"It seems like a lifetime ago that the company put all of us managers through diversity training," said a middle-manager friend. "We were told that diversity is one of our company's core values and the focus was on two things: understanding the laws that managers could inadvertently break and avoiding those pitfalls; and striving to be color-blind, gender-blind, and otherwise 'label'-blind in making employment and promotion decisions….Seemed like a piece of cake."
"What's changed?" I asked.
"It's gotten so much more complicated," he answered. "The other day, we had a little birthday gathering for our bookkeeper. I don't keep track of my team's ages, but I guess Annette turned 50. So we had the usual cake, and someone gave her a bunch of black balloons and sang a dirge about how old she is. Silly stuff, Annette just laughed, and it seemed like everyone was having fun."
"So what's the problem?" I questioned.
"Afterward, one of the supervisors told me that another employee was offended. If we make jokes about someone being old and feeble at 50, then this employee feels that we must be devaluing older people, and that includes her, because she's over 50. So can we never tell a joke again or have a birthday celebration? After all, we do these things to bring people together and help build a team."
This is a lot more complicated than someone getting offended about an office birthday party. Diversity in the workplace is a powerful concept and is one that is still evolving, but now it is much more about inclusion than meeting quotas. Thirty years ago, corporate diversity mostly referred to efforts to hire and promote women and minorities, and it was a numbers game. In the spirit of creating a diverse sales team, a diverse leadership team, or a diverse call center, we hired and promoted people based on quotas rather than skills. We neither added to the competitive heft of our organizations nor created the strong feeling of unity we may have been seeking. Today, most employers are smarter about managing diversity.
There's way more to achieving diversity than recruiting at historically African American universities or running a recruiting ad targeted at Hispanic MBAs. Those are great efforts, but they won't build a diverse, much less a cohesive, workforce. Nowadays, leaders who value a diverse workplace ask: "Do women, minorities, non-U.S.-born employees, people of different ages, and other people feel valued here in our company?" That's the real issue.
We can talk about diversity until we're blue in the face, but until we demonstrate that we mean it we can't expect our employees to believe us. Apart from the visible success stories—the number of managers who are Caucasian males, for instance—we can do more to fly the diversity-and-inclusion banner. We can talk openly with our employees about what working in a global, diverse environment entails. We can discuss frankly generational differences, cultural differences, and gender differences. We can talk about the challenges between working parents and nonparents. We can address these issues head-on as relevant workplace topics.
Let's take the over-50 employee who was put off by the birthday dirge and the black balloons. That woman got a one-time, negative message she took to mean that it's a bad thing to be over 50 in her company. We might scoff and say that she's overreacting, that it was only a joke, and that no one is devalued because of age. But it may be that this woman has never gotten any positive messages about the value of her maturity, life experience, and professional chops. So she has this one, unfortunate snapshot of the black birthday balloons to think about. An inclusion-focused employer would take care to send messages about the value of generational diversity, along with all the other kinds, at every possible juncture.
Communicating a Vision
How can an organization broadcast its inclusive nature? For starters, it can showcase its diversity of talent. It can point to examples of older workers, African American employees, Latino and Latina professionals, physically challenged team members, LGBT employees, and non-U.S.-born colleagues who have had success in the company. It can remind employees—via the company intranet, its newsletter, and its CEO's speeches—how important a diverse team is to the organization's success.
Those speeches and articles—backed by diversity and inclusion strategies ranging from mentoring programs to affinity groups to, yes, management training courses—keep employees focused on the fact that the company values each employee for his or her own talents. There are no magic bullets, but communicating the diversity vision is an important start. When an employee has never heard or seen it demonstrated that a company values people over 50, why should she assume it?
Employers who worry about the coming talent shortage would do well to examine their own cultures by asking the question "Do employees feel valued simply for their skills?" The results of a confidential survey or employee focus group may surprise a leadership team that believes its commitment to diversity should go without saying. If you take this step, prepare yourself for unexpected responses like "The company seems to give everyone a chance, but it helps if you attended Notre Dame." Creating a truly inclusive and merit-based culture is neither simple nor quick. But it starts with the intention to do it. Smart employers focused on long-term competitive advantage will step up their efforts to bring—and keep—talent on board, whatever shape, size, age, color, or gender the package.
About the Author
Liz Ryan writes her "Career Insight" column and answers readers' questions every week at businessweek.com/managing. She is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.
Source : Business Week