Best Practices in Workforce Diversity

by Rita Ali
Illinois Central College

Today’s organizations are beginning to understand the power of diversity, all the way down to the bottom line. Numerous research studies have shown how valuing diversity in the workplace has led to higher profits and greater business success. According to Overcoming Barriers to Opportunity by S.B. Knouse and J.B. Stewart, despite the current economic downturn, many organizations have kept their diversity programs intact or increased their funding, a clear sign that companies are experiencing direct payoffs from their investments in diversity.

In 2004, the total U.S. buying power was $8.6 trillion, with $1.8 trillion, or 21 percent, controlled by various diversity groups. In 2009, total U.S. buying power was projected at $11.1 trillion, and with diversity groups growing at a rate higher than that of the total population, it is estimated that they now control an even greater percentage. These numbers, as well as projected demographic shifts in the U.S. population, are those that American businesses cannot ignore. Diversity is here, with no plans to depart in the foreseeable future.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce and former Vice President Al Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government Benchmarking Study, Best Practices in Achieving Workforce Diversity, diversity is imperative in order to maintain a competitive business advantage. It is incumbent upon organizations to capitalize on the richness of our diversity. The following are 10 best practices in workforce diversity that almost any organization can implement.

  1. Define diversity broadly. Organizations found to be most effective in their diversity efforts define diversity broadly, beyond race and gender, to include all of its dimensions. This means that everyone is included in this thing we call diversity. It is important to help employees understand that diversity includes all characteristics and experiences that define each person as an individual.
  2. Commitment to diversity starts at the top. Success in workforce diversity begins with an active and visible commitment by senior leaders. Diversity strategies are doomed or severely limited without a sincere commitment from the top. Enough said!
  3. Align diversity goals and objectives with organizational mission and goals. Best-of-class organizations align diversity goals and objectives with the company’s mission and goals. Diversity, thereby, becomes integrated as an organizational priority. Consider making diversity a core value or strategic objective of the organization. 
  4. Diversity Helps Business…

    • By creating a larger talent pool, helping organizations to attract and retain the best available talent, which makes firms more competitive.
    • By enhancing marketing efforts. A diverse workforce better serves a diverse customer base, offers better insights into customer needs, and markets can be segmented along diversity group lines. 
    • By increasing creativity in organizational processes. A diverse workforce possesses more innovative ideas, creative approaches and diverse strategies for dealing with organizational issues. 
    • By improving problem solving. A diverse workforce offers new solutions, expanded critical analysis and higher quality decisions. 
    • By creating organizational flexibility, with less tradition-bound and more divergent thinking. Accommodating diversity makes the organization more adaptable to other organizational issues.

    Source: "‘Hard’” Measures that Support the Business Case for Diversity: A Balanced Scorecard Approach” by Stephen B. Knouse, PhD, and James B. Stewart, PhD

  5. Make the distinction between diversity and Affirmative Action/EEO. Designed to correct historical wrongs, Affirmative Action programs have been instrumental in opening doors of employment opportunity for women and minorities, and Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws have prohibited discrimination in the workplace. While Affirmative Action and EEO help to complement a workforce diversity strategy, they are not synonymous with diversity, and it is important to make this distinction. Diversity is proactive, as opposed to reactive, and calls for change within the culture of the organization. With inclusion at its core, diversity favors all. 
  6. Present your business case for diversity. Diversity is more than a moral imperative—it is a business opportunity. This message must be clearly communicated to the workforce. A quick review of demographic shifts within the U.S. population and marketplace provide ample rationale in support of diversity. However, it is equally important that organizations examine and share data related to current and projected demographics within their specific market or community. Who are you serving now? Who will you be serving in the future? Does your workforce adequately reflect your customer base? Use hard data to support your business case for diversity.
  7. Create a diversity plan and hold leaders and managers responsible for diversity. Implementing diversity is not a single person’s responsibility. To be effective, responsibility for diversity must be shared throughout the organization; its leaders and managers must be held accountable for diversity goals and measurable results.
  8. Increase the numbers of underrepresented populations at all levels of the organization. Organizations should make it a priority to increase their number of underrepresented populations throughout various levels of the organization. Most often, this means expanding the numbers of racial and ethnic minorities, female executives and people with disabilities. Remember that a diverse workforce better serves a diverse customer base, enhances innovation, makes the organization more adaptable, and often increases financial performance.
  9. Manage inclusion. Like other major changes within an organization, changes in workforce composition must be managed. Through strong and consistent communication, information sharing, and diversity education, employees must be prepped for anticipated changes. Demographic shifts create tension in organizations, and tensions often challenge our conditioning. Proper management of an inclusive workforce, however, can result in long-term benefits overall. Stay the course and understand that building harmony takes time and patience. 
  10. Establish an internal diversity committee. A company diversity committee can be instrumental in engaging employees to take an active role in diversity initiatives. The committee can plan diversity awareness events and activities, disseminate diversity education information and materials, and serve in an advisory capacity to senior leaders.
  11. Provide a safe place for dialogue on diversity issues. Employees need to be able to communicate their concerns and/or satisfaction-related to issues of diversity. Honest, open dialogue can be healthy for individuals and organizations, but must be accommodated by safe, supportive environments for sensitive dialogue. Facilitated study circles, peace circles or roundtable discussions can be used to implement productive dialogue on diversity. iBi

Rita Ali is the executive director of diversity at Illinois Central College.

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