Our views of diversity in America are changing, but they aren’t keeping up with the global reality that now faces American companies.
Traditionally, diversity focused on the integration of people from racial, gender, physical ability and religious perspectives inside of large corporations motivated by political or operational imperative, or social good. The idea was to create a diverse workforce that reflected the composition of the American population in a way that could be seen, one that reflected the diversity of their customers.
But America is no longer a walled garden of talent that can be managed and nurtured independently of the global context. As most multinational firms already know, and many smaller firms are beginning to realize, diversity is now a business necessity. Even if a business doesn’t include a strategic imperative for diversity, or any need to offer diversity as a social good; they still need to consider diversity as employee, customer, supplier and partner configurations expands to include people of all races, religions, regions and world views.
Diversity, as suggested by the Gardenswarz & Rowe four-layer model of diversity (“Emotional Intelligence and Diversity,” Journal of Psychological Issues in Organizational Culture), as well as in my book, Management by Design, is evolving beyond the rather derogatory idea of “color counting” to include many other aspects of what make individuals, well, individuals.
Some of these new diversity attributes include:
- Future view: existential vs. deterministic
- Brith parents/adopted
- Reward motivation
- Extent of domestic and foreign travel (cultural exposure)
- Reasoning bias (evidence-based or ideological)
- Gender identification
Union Bank uses a modified version of the Gardenswarz & Rowe model (The Future of Diversity and Inclusion, Profiles in Diversity Journal). They include 25 dimensions of diversity, including the external dimensions (e.g., geographical location, education, marital status, religion) and organizational dimensions (e.g., business unit, tenure, level, work location). Peeling the onion of diversity eventually leads to the internal dimensions (e.g., race, sexual orientation, disability, age), over which people have no control, and ultimately the inner core of diversity, an individual’s personality.
Beyond these, emergent attributes of diversity arrive with technology, such as attachments to social media and virtual reality that create entirely new perceptions of the world, reinforced by personal experience. The Millennial generation has been characterized as the first to know a world dominated by the Internet. The next generation, the Virtuals, find themselves in a world where the virtual and the physical interact, from Club Penguin and Webkinz to QR Codes and Near Field Communications. That will create yet another set of attributes of distinction based on technology familiarity, versus active engagement, versus taking it for granted.
Ultimately these new diversity attributes start to align with real business goals. Workforce Planning expert Rana Hobbs, the Director of Customer Success at HumanConcepts sees ideas like reasoning bias, how information is consumed/communicated, and customer communication skills as key variables for modeling the global workforce. This leads not only to hiring decisions, but also to professional development initiatives that help infuse existing works with some of the more acquirable diversity capabilities.
Recommendation 1: Embrace a definition of diversity to include a wide set of attributes that go well beyond race, sexual orientation, religious affiliation or age. Diversity and inclusion should be seen not as a way to attune political perceptions, but to drive business goals such as strong customer relationships and increased innovation, both of which are improved when diverse views of the world are employed as a lens for interpreting information and imagining possibilities.
Americans in the Global Economy
The global economy, however, tears at the rather parochial definitions of diversity held by American managers, no matter how researched or well-intended. How does one think of diversity when entire classes of jobs are outsourced to parts of the world, like India, that introduce new, local definitions of diversity, as well as much deeper economic and ethnic diversity than is found in America?
At our core, Americans, when compared to the world, are rather homogeneous in their external dimensions. People participating in a two party political system, even at the height of divisiveness, have no issue understanding the language or positions of the other, as much as they may talk around them.
And yes, race and economy continue to divide, but even with the increased disparity of economic wealth, the average American is more average than the average Indian. And in a nation founded on egalitarian principals, even though they were not always practiced early in its heritage, the greatly differentiated religions often collaborate during inclusive clerical institutes, and find common cause during national observances, holding combined services that celebrate the commonality of living in one of the most religious countries in the world, rather than focusing on the differences between the faiths.
Americans, however, are rather poor at accepting our minority position in the greater world. We are already a distant third in population behind India and China.
And that is the crux of the need to shift our views of diversity in America. Work is no long about regional differences between New York and a subsidiary in New Orleans. It is about manufacturing American designed clothes in Bangladesh. And as Apple has found recently, the propensity of Americans to project their common ethic of diversity and inclusion on people who, without the connection to Apple, might be a cause for a minor non-governmental agency, but would certainly not rise to national consciousness, even rabid social media campaigns.
Americans live and work in a multicultural world. In India, the national census recognized 30 languages spoken by a million or more people. When Americans work with people in India, despite the high rate of English fluency, no one should assume that what they say is what another person hears. Cultural differences, as well as local language differences mean that subtle shifts in language make even a universal tongue more diverse than its native speakers perceive. Americans have enough difficulty understanding variants of English in England, Scotland, and Ireland, let alone in Goa or the Punjab.
Recommendation 2: Accept America’s place in the world and open up to an understanding that part of diversity and inclusion for American companies needs to include cultural awareness and education for employees, managers and leaders for areas of the world where they have an active customers, operations or partnership agreements. This includes understanding of history, religion, culture and language at a minimum. Diversity and inclusion can no longer be limited to what employees are treated and perceived, but needs to permeate the entire internal and external profile of an organization.
Redefining Diversity at Home
White babies no longer account for 50% of births in America. For the 12 month period ending in July of 2011, Hispanics, blacks, Asians and those of mixed race reached 50.4 percent for the first time in the nation’s history.
In little more than a decade (2023), the U.S. Census Bureau projects that these same “minorities” will count as the majority among Americans 18 years old and younger. By 2042 the United States will enter as post-white majority world.
The world that “diversity” programs was meant to influence no longer exists. Even though white males maintain disproportionate numbers in management and leadership positions, more representative managerial ranks will be inevitable. America is at a transition point where history remains vivid for older workers, but new workers have no such context to judge the world, or to shape their personal expectations or ambitions. Diversity in America will arrive as an artifact of history unless some untoward event occurs at the edge of possibility as the minority attempts to hold power through political, military or other means.
Recommendation 3: Recognize that diversity in the American workforce has already changed. The perception of the younger generation is not that of the older generation. In some industries and geographies white Americans are already a minority. Diversity and inclusion needs to look not to only to “protected classes” but also to empowering the young employees and partners of America’s workforce.
Recommendation 4 It is time to do away with diversity and inclusion programs and transform them into measured, strategic objectives that all managers must understand and strive to accomplish in their work. A small group of people organizationally hung off the office of the CEO or running out of human resources can only guide change, and after several decades, that role, like many other functional roles elevated into the “C”-suite by contextual necessity (Chief Quality Officer, Chief Knowledge Officer to name two) often cause division rather than solutions.
Non-core function C-Suite roles often result in the following dysfunctions:
- A perceived place where an issue is being dealt with so others don’t need to deal with it
- The creation of a body of knowledge and experience as a new silo within the organization
- Advice that, in the heat of execution, is often ignored because the function lack the authority to integrate their area of responsibility into operational processes
- Non-business integrated events, like diversity fairs, are often perceived as superfluous wastes of time that don’t add value
As I used to tell Chief Knowledge Officers, the best work you can do is to work yourself out of a job as quickly as possible. You can’t manage all of the organization’s knowledge. Once you get them to appreciate the value of knowledge as an operational asset, you have done the most you can do. Everything else will be about integration into operations. The same holds true for diversity and inclusion. The ultimate expression of diversity principles will be best implemented in the way managers hire, and in the way they practice management.
Recommendation 5: In a workshop I ran recently on diversity and inclusion, one of the attendees said that we will know we have arrived when every individual says “it’s not about me.” That statement means that people are recognized for who they are, for their unique talents and perspectives. They no longer need to defend, over assert or disguise their differences, but just be themselves. We should all accept this as a personal challenge in our relationship with other people. Perhaps the best celebration of diversity comes not from overt recognition, but from subtle appreciation.
[Image: Flickr user Carsten Schertzer]