The issue of diversity in the workplace is as difficult to define as the very issues it deals with. Gone are the days when quotas and token minority representation were enough to brand a company as having a ‘diverse’ workforce. Business adheres little to boundaries, both geographically and culturally, and with expanding markets working themselves further and further away from many North American headquarters, the need to better understand both your consumers and employees, takes an unprecedented importance.
In increasing numbers, global corporations are including diversity as a business strategy from the top down, creating prominent senior roles to help drive the initiatives. Marcia Williams, Vice President of Diversity for Albertsons, a leading grocery-store chain with over 2,300 stores in the U.S., says that diversity as a business model will only work as well as the most senior person involved, and it helps if that person is your CEO.
“I think most people recognize that it starts at the top,” says Williams. “We have a strong commitment to diversity from our CEO and once you have your CEO discussing it and believing in it, when you ask for support, it’s basically given.”
In order to ensure that diversity is spread across the upper echelons of Albertsons, there is an executive leadership committee that meets quarterly where the division presidents have to give diversity updates based on a set of criteria and a template that has been established. Williams says that it isn’t something that can just be discussed, but rather, “It is something that has to be lived.”
Sun Microsystems, one of the world’s largest networking firms, places similar emphasis on the need for company leaders to tackle the diversity bull by the horns.
“There always needs to be a leader to become a champion if any initiative is to be successful,” says Candi Castleberry-Singleton, Director of Global Inclusion and Diversity for Sun Microsystems. “I think at Sun the catalyst was our leader. Without a strong leader someone in my role has an incredible task.”
Both Castleberry-Singleton and Williams agree that leadership is a strong starting point, but in order to really push the message, leadership must be developed and nurtured from the top; leadership should be as diverse as you are trying to make the rest of your business.
“I think that our successes have come in recognizing the need for global leadership as a strategy,” says Castleberry-Singleton. “Pulling together senior leaders to help define our cultural framework and having the commitment of the organization to really own the people development helps dramatically.”
“The goal is for leaders in respective divisions to make diversity part of their every day thinking, part of their every day life,” says Williams. “Once you get top leadership involved, and then the next level down and then the next level down, you get a great shot of making diversity a way of life for the company.”
But diversity isn’t something that can be easily defined. Diversity no longer deals with just color or religion, but now includes many of the things that make us unique from one another, from where we live to how we handle stress. Diversity issues focused on by one company, might be secondary to another company. For General Motors, and Karen DeCuir-DiNicola, Manager of Diversity Initiatives, diversity includes differences in race and religion. But just as important is how employees deal with the differences between each other. Understanding the human side of colleagues makes understanding someone else’s perspective, much easier.
“A lot of our diversity strategies are developed around creating experiences where once you ‘get it,’ you can’t ‘un-get it,’” says DeCuir-DiNicola. “You can hear about how African Americans are having a hard time, but until you sit down and talk about it and see an African American in tears, saying they moved to America and into a predominately white community and they egged their house, you won’t fully get it. Now it has a face. In the pain you can see and relate. When you have a person attached to it, it becomes very powerful.”
That is but one side to diversity. GM places the focus on how diversity affects us individually which then allows their employees to become more sensitive to how diversity might affect their co-workers. Sun Microsystems looks at diversity from a global perspective and how its diverse geographic locations affect its ability to properly conduct business.
“At Sun, using me as an example of the average employee, 75 percent of my work is done over the phone,” says Castleberry-Singleton. “That means I don’t necessarily see the person I am dealing with and I have to find ways to drive productivity and engage employees in ways that are different than a traditional management team.”
The challenge for Sun is that some of their locations are globally remote and culturally dispersed. This makes for challenging communication between offices because of time zone differences, but also communication and work habits that can vary from region to region. The goal is to bridge an understanding between all the units so that business can run as one cohesive unit, even if it is made up of the sum of many parts.
Building that bridge is the tricky part and requires the cooperation of many, but once the projects get rolling, there seems to be no end to the enthusiasm from the people who ‘get it’, and that translates into further interest by others. As with any new initiative, it sometimes takes a bit to get things rolling, but the responses have been positive and a large part of making diversity work, is getting your employees involved.
Because Albertsons’ employee base is extensive and many of them are part-time, getting diversity down to the store floor isn’t easy. Williams is working on implementing diversity initiatives to carry it further down the pipe, including e-learning options, but for now they have to start at the top. They are focusing on the leadership for the time being, as well as with working on ways to get the employees involved and interested.
“When I started overseeing diversity, we only had nine affinity groups,” says Williams. “Now we are up to 27 and those groups include women’s groups, African-American groups, Asian and Hispanic groups.. The affinity groups were a little resistant at the beginning because they didn’t understand what they could do but once we showed them what it is all about they have become invaluable in terms of reaching to the community.”
Affinity groups are volunteer collections of employees that pick their own diversity missions, centered around corporate goals set out by the company that employs them. They are given budget support by the company. Once the groups form and mature, they are a powerful grassroots information venue for the diversity goals of the companies, and are generally led by the very people who make up the diverse work environment. Sun Microsystems also uses affinity groups to help foster their diversity goals.
“We have probably 27 different affinity groups and we have about five geographic site councils,” says Castleberry-Singleton. “Employees have helped us to identify things that they believe they can help to move Sun forward in the area of diversity. These volunteers are under a framework we created called the ‘Employee Resources Network’, which is a consortium of geographic councils, affinity groups and different people who just want to take the work further.”
Other initiatives come from within the company. GM is a firm believer in discussions about diversity and interactive scenarios where people can see just how diversity comes into play. One of their most successful programs is called ‘Conversation Starters’. They involve short, 10 minute scenarios where a small group of people are presented with different situations that might occur in the work place. One example would be an HR person excited to interview a candidate based purely on their resume because their qualifications exceed what is expected, but when the candidate arrives for the interview, they are covered in tattoos and body piercings. The participants then have to respond. While policy exists on the treatment of employees, these scenarios require more than a reference to a policy guide, they require that people grapple with real issues and confront their own biases. DeCuir-DiNicola says that the responses are amazing.
“It is fascinating to watch,” says DeCuir-DiNicola. “There is no policy for this situation so you have conversation and you don’t necessarily come up with what is right or wrong, but you get people to think about it. It’s a huge eye-opener and it just brings us closer. Once they are over the initial anxiety it is very powerful.”
Sun Microsystems focuses on their employees as well, making sure they are exposed to, and participate in, diverse situations. Sun also puts a strong emphasis on their leadership to make sure that it is as diverse as their workforce so they too can lead by example and carry the initiatives all the way down the line. Sun achieves this through their ‘Multicultural Talent Pipeline.’
“The purpose is to evaluate and appropriately assess and adjust the existing programs and processes to ensure diverse participation, demographically and globally, within all levels of the pipeline,” says Castleberry-Singleton. “You don’t want all your leaders developed in the U.S. because 40 percent of Sun’s employees are outside of the US. Also, with the emerging market opportunities coming from outside the U.S. you really need to develop global leaders. We are imbedding it in the DNA of Sun’s work process.”
Developing leaders for the future will now require large companies to take into account the world around them, and the countries they do business in. Economic situations are shaky and tensions in various regions around the planet are high, all of which require everyone in an organization to understand the differences and needs of their co-workers. Companies can no longer place a certain percentage of a race or religion in a work force and assume that is enough for diversity and that those people will integrate and blend in. They need to educate their workforce on the differences between each other and how to avoid being offensive—intentionally or not.
In order to do this corporate leadership must understand that diversity is about all the things that make us different. Leadership must understand that, as Candi Castleberry-Singleton said, “Diversity is not just about numbers.” Otherwise, there is no effective diversity program in place.