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by Sondra Thiederman, PhD

No one wants to work where they are unwelcome, uncomfortable or unfulfilled. Sadly, this is what can happen when we exert little effort to make our workplaces hospitable to employees of all backgrounds.

Not everyone in the workplace is fortunate enough to instantly fit in wherever they go. It might be a woman like Jenna who found herself immersed in the male-dominated Internet world, or Steve, who struggled to belong in a workplace where he was uncomfortable admitting he was gay. Even David experienced exclusion when he went to work for an all-female organization. Being different can be difficult, and, for the sake of business, it can mean that fine employees fail to function at their best. Worse, they are compelled to move on to greener pastures where they feel more accepted, better able to communicate and more at ease.

If your organization is riddled with sexism, ageism, homophobia and racism, then the solutions below are not for you. These ideas will only work in organizations where the climate is basically receptive to differences but some of the skills necessary to honor them are not yet in place. These three keys can help build a diversity-friendly workplace that values and encourages the contributions of all.


Of course there is more to any diversity effort than training, but education still is an indispensable first step to creating a diversity-friendly workplace. I am not talking about training so-called majority employees how to communicate with the minority new arrival but, instead about how all employees can communicate better. One tenet that has been missing from diversity training is awareness that communication is a multi-way street. It is no longer accurate to say all will be well if native-born Americans learn to communicate with immigrants, heterosexuals with homosexuals and men with women. Immigrants also need to learn to communicate with the native-born, gay men and lesbian women with heterosexuals and women with men. In short, everyone needs to learn to communicate with everyone else.


Networking groups are another way new diverse employees can be helped to feel more comfortable. Groups like these have functioned successfully in diverse organizations ever since AT&T launched it's first racially defined affinity groups. Women's groups, gay and lesbian groups, and Asian-Pacific Island groups are all examples of programs designed to encourage contact between like populations.

What is missing from like-population networking groups such as these is the function of getting to know populations different from one's own. Parenting groups, for example, are invaluable because they create a common bond and increased comfort across gender, race and ethnic lines. Similarly, groups of employees responsible for eldercare find connections and means of communication in their common challenges, frustrations and joys. The purpose of cross-functional groups such as these is to focus on the shared challenges and interests that allow people of all backgrounds to connect, communicate better and, therefore, feel more comfortable in the organization.


Finally, mentoring partnerships are important in making diverse employees feel at home. There are two ways to design mentoring programs. One is to match new employees with current employees of a similar background. This approach has the advantage of allowing the current employee to pass on wisdom gained from his or her unique experience as a member of that group. The second approach is to match people of different demographic descriptions: men with women, immigrants with the native born, Latinos with African Americans, etc. This is a constructive approach because it encourages mutual understanding between diverse groups and, therefore, has a positive impact on increasing mutual comfort and adaptability.

The key to all of these approaches is to guarantee enough knowledge is present in the organization to allow everyone to communicate effectively with and understand those who are different from themselves. Only in this way can we create an environment truly hospitable to diversity.

Getting Upper-Level Support...

by Sondra Thiederman, PhD

Starting a diversity program is close to impossible without upper-level management's support. While this is easier to obtain than in years past, it still can be quite a challenge, especially with a waning economy. How you obtain support will vary according to your corporate culture and the personalities of your leadership, but certain principles apply across the board.

Link Diversity to Business Objectives

When presenting ideas for your program, make it clear that diversity efforts have a strong business imperative.

The most important trick is to make the business case specific to your organization. It does no good to ramble on about immigration rates or the amount of global business done by US companies if your organization conducts business in a relatively homogenous part of the country and has no plans to go global. Executives will immediately see through these generalities and come back with something like: "Well, that's all very nice, but what does it have to do with us?" You had better be prepared to answer that question.

Be Specific

Perhaps one of your business goals is to increase market share in Mexico. If so, management will respond quickly to the practical need to attract more Spanish-speaking sales associates and will see your diversity efforts as important to that objective. Perhaps you are attempting to improve your organization's image as a company that cares about humanitarian causes. Visible diversity efforts certainly support that goal. Whatever the link, the closer you can tie diversity to business, the better off you will be.

Be Realistic

But be careful not to make exaggerated claims for diversity. Yes, recruiting a diverse workforce is good for business and is the right thing to do, but do not make the mistake that some companies have when they've acted as if a diverse workforce will guarantee increased market share, higher stock prices and greater success. For years, diversity professionals have made unfounded claims that ultimately damaged such initiatives' credibility. Smart executives know when a case is being overstated and will respond much better to a modest truth than an exaggerated claim.

Get Started

Finally, don't wait for executive support to start your diversity efforts. If at all possible, put a small piece of your program in place before you approach upper-level management for large-scale support. Show them what you can do and that it does make a difference. Luncheons where people bring foods from different cultures are all very nice, but no executives worth their salt will be impressed. On the other hand, your ability to network in minority communities and attract talented, motivated and innovative employees of different backgrounds will make an impression. Like the phrase, "Build it and they will come," the same applies to your diversity initiative. Build it honestly and intelligently, and they will come and lend their support.

The Bottom Line on Diversity

by Paula Santonocito

Companies are discovering that employing a diverse workforce makes good business sense, and it can mean more dollars on the bottom line. So says a study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Fortune magazine called Impact of Diversity Initiatives on the Bottom Line, which is based on the responses of human resource professionals at 121 Fortune 1,000 companies.

According to the report, diversity initiatives bolster the bottom line in a number of ways. Respondents indicate that diversity improves:

  • Corporate culture.
  • Recruitment of new employees.
  • Client relations.

In addition, diversity results in:

  • Higher retention of employees.
  • Decreased complaints and litigation.
  • The organization's improved ability to move into emerging markets.

At Fannie Mae, corporate initiatives have resulted in a more diverse workforce. More than 43 percent of the company's employees are minorities, as are five of the 18 members of its board of directors. These statistics, as well as the fact that a large percentage of minorities hold executive and managerial positions, earned the nation's largest home mortgage reseller the top spot on Fortune's "Best Companies for Minorities" list this year.

Although the company appreciates the recognition, Maria Johnson, Fannie Mae's vice president of diversity, health and work-life initiatives, says corporate diversity initiatives are not focused on getting awards. "At the end of the day, we are all here to produce results, and we take a two-tiered approach," she says. "The internal program helps with recruitment, retention and quality-of-life issues, and the other part is to add value to our external customers. Both enhance our bottom line."

According to Johnson, diversity initiatives at Fannie Mae have reduced turnover. In addition, she says, as a best-practices company, Fannie Mae has increased access to capital and investors. "We've had numerous calls from investors inquiring about our human resource and staffing practices. We think it's an element among investors."

Fannie Mae has been so successful in building a diverse workforce that it's now offering training to its lender partners. The program is part of the company's overall emerging markets initiative. "It's very unusual for HR internal processes to actually touch the customer," says Johnson. "We're very excited that we're part of touching our Fannie Mae customers directly."

Hank Clemons, president of The HLC Group, a firm specializing in customized courses and programs that include a diversity series, agrees that diversity initiatives make good financial sense.

"Having a diverse workforce helps the organization as well as the public. It demonstrates social responsibility and social awareness," he says, pointing out that these components, in turn, contribute to customer attraction and customer retention. "If I'm already buying a product, and I'm finding one company is ahead [in terms of social responsibility], I'm going to spend my money where it shows."

Diversity practices can also enhance a company's ability to compete abroad. "In a global economy, companies that are diverse in terms of employee ethnic, gender and racial backgrounds have a better chance of tapping into emerging markets," he says.

Moreover, a company doesn't have to just assume that diversity programs work. Clemons says there are concrete ways in which it can measure the success of its initiatives. He gives the example of an organization that has a problem with absenteeism and finds, upon talking to its employees, that single parents are taking whole days off to attend their children's school functions. The company then implements flextime and subsequently can look at the impact of the family-friendly benefit in terms of dollars in order to measure results. Among things it considers is the lost work time of absent employees, and time spent by managers and supervisors trying to replace people.

Clemons says diversity initiatives can be measured by developing a matrix. When implemented properly, diversity initiatives can provide tangible, measurable results.

Nevertheless, what about the company that still thinks diversity doesn't pay? Clemons says he tells skeptics to keep doing what they're doing -- and meanwhile see what their competition does. He says sooner or later, that will usually show them whether or not diversity pays.