“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.” – Ani Difranco (American singer/songwriter)
October is designated as Global Diversity Awareness Month. This is a good time to look at strengthening your organization through leveraging diversity.
First of all, let’s make sure we are on the same page when we use the word diversity.
Expand Your Definition of Diversity
The word diversity gets thrown around a lot these days. It can be found in institutional strategic plans, organizational values and even the mission statement of an organization.
But what is actually meant by this term? Sometimes individuals use the word diversity to refer to matters of race, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation. Consider looking at diversity as much broader than these categories.
Think about all of the other things that make people unique. What are other aspects of diversity that may not immediately come to mind?
Aspects of Diversity (Examples)
- Level of education
- Socio-economic status
- Religious beliefs and observances
- Marital status
- Geographic origin
- Height and weight
- Cognitive abilities
- Physical abilities
- First language
- Working style
- Personality and presentation
Optimize the Diversity Within Your Organization
If our definition of diversity expands, how do we do a better job of leveraging that diversity within our organizations so that we optimize our potential? We need to start by ensuring that we are working to build equitable and inclusive workplace environments.
Diversity can only thrive and succeed where equity and inclusion practices form the foundation of our organizations.
For ten years I worked at a non-profit organization where within a 4-block radius of our office people spoke more than one hundred languages. To try to match some of that diversity and provide services within our diverse community, our staff, board and volunteers represented four major world religions, multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds, different sexual orientations and over 30 languages! It wasn’t easy, and we weren’t always successful, but through trial and error and a deep commitment to diversity we worked at building an inclusive environment during my tenure there.
Later, over a five-year period I worked in higher education on two large university campuses. I observed equity and inclusion practices that worked well, and I also observed the absence of certain practices that led to serious challenges around equity and inclusion issues.
Based on my experiences in these different environments, and through my consulting work with many organizations, corporations and non-profits, I suggest three areas to focus on to solidify the foundation required to optimally leverage diversity in your organization:
1. INSTILL A CULTURE COMMITTED TO DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION AT ALL LEVELS.
For this to happen we need to see diversity as having value within an organization.
- Make diversity and inclusion important at the level of mandate or organizational values, as well as at the level of interactions between individuals, groups, departments and stakeholders.
- Focus on the people: recruit and retain diverse employees. This creates an environment that is sought out by employees and prospective employees. You will strengthen your organization by doing so.
- Regularly and positively highlight and promote diversity initiatives in the company newsletter. This higher profile and value helps community members see diversity as something to affirm and celebrate.
- Make sure that all community members understand they are to be responsible for upholding an equitable work environment. You can do this through public education, workshops, “lunch and learn” sessions and educational campaigns.
2. COLLECT DATA TO MEASURE AND EVALUATE YOUR PROGRESS (e.g., employee survey, equity audit, accessibility review)
One of the best things that one of my former employers did was to conduct an employee equity audit every year. Employees will tell you about their experiences and give you input if you ask them and if they think you will take it seriously. If you ask your employees for anonymous feedback about diversity, perceptions of fairness and discrimination they will tell you how they feel they are being treated.
“A lot of different flowers make a bouquet.” – Muslim proverb
If you collect data on a regular basis, you will be able to compare on a yearly or bi-annual basis how you are doing with your diversity and inclusion goals and employee engagement. I can tell you that my employer was considered to be an employer of choice and a top diversity employer. It is one of the things that attracted me to the company when I was being interviewed.
Dr. Rohini Anand reported on research asserting that companies that disregard diversity as an important part of their business have a higher percentage of disengaged employees. In fact, when employees feel valued for their differences, and diversity is seen as strength, highest performers can perform 20% better and are 87% less likely to leave a company. Dr. Anand shows here that diversity and inclusion can become a competitive advantage for an organization.
3. BE PROACTIVE ABOUT INCLUSION.
I love it when organizations can avoid being reactive to legislation changes and, instead, be ahead of the legislation curve regarding things like accessibility for persons with disabilities, or individuals requiring religious accommodations.
In order to see and reflect success around diversity, it is important for organizations to create, review, reform and strengthen their policies and practices. Do this by using an “equity and inclusion lens”. Sometimes our policies and practices unwittingly exclude. If this is the case, or it has come to our attention through our diversifying communities, it is a learning opportunity, and an occasion to expand our ability to embrace diversity with equity and inclusivity.
You can do many things to constructively leverage diversity within your organization. These are three areas to focus on that I believe will help you achieve this end. Diversity is a beautiful thing, especially when it is able to flourish in an environment of equity and inclusion.
To learn more, consider attending one of our workshops, or view our webinars on related topics. Find details here: www.achievecentre.com.
 DiversityInc,. ‘How Diversity And Inclusion Drive Employee Engagement – Diversityinc’. N.p., 2013. Web. 1 Oct. 2015.