How much has changed since the recent “dribble drabble” releases of census information? Nothing. Nothing much unless you count ‘awareness’ that is. Most of the census information measures the change since Y2K but its delivery of the information merely confirms what most people know -the world has changed and continues to.
Since the emergence of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, the term “global economy” has been a growing part of our business jargon. What that led to is an industry around diversity training that some estimate well into the 8 figures. But many court cases have proven that “diversity training” by consultants has not always been the most effective at supporting most corporation’s initial goal of reduced litigation; in fact in the early 1990s, the opposite occurred due to poorly trained trainers. The smartest companies got wise and developed their own training departments and created the executive position of Chief Diversity Officer along with volunteer Employee Resource Groups or “ERGs.” Even these smart companies however, are running into challenges. In fact, it’s the companies with the most intelligent, ambitious and highest potential employees that struggle with adding the new responsibilities of workplace diversity management to their job descriptions. This struggle is in part because the goals of these groups have changed since their early inception, along with our understanding of their ability to impact workplace success.
Having participated as a volunteer both for internal and external affinity or resource groups, I have had the opportunity to witness and participate in both failure and success. Like any collection of people united by a common cause, the key to victory is:
- Clarity of the mission
- Articulation of a strategy to achieve that mission
- Identifying the right people to implement the strategy
In last month’s article What Dictators Get Wrong but Good Leaders Get Right I spent some time on strategy and tactics but here I will focus on the “Clarity of the Mission.” In my limited research I have understood diversity training to encompass many different themes including: Cross Cultural Training, Multicultural Training and Race Relations. Both Multicultural Training and Race Relations seemed to have had a focus on differences between cultures and races rather than what brings all people together. They were developed at a time when the perception was people of a different race, culture or nationality were inherently “different.” Cross Cultural Training stemmed from the idea that those who weren’t different may be going to a foreign country that by default was different and so needed training to literally “deal with” other people. None of these training concepts had insidious goals but the success of their effects were at best blurred and at times created discontent among not only minorities but also the majorities.
In a global economy where the Fortune 500 fails to exist without business dispersed among many countries, blurred success cost money. If the post-modern ideal of diversity awareness is working through ERGs then there must be a postmodernism in the way we approach the management of ERGs.
The conventional approach to ERGs is to identify high achieving, traditional minorities – based on race, age, gender, sexuality or “handi-capability” – within the organization and reward their high work ethic with, in fact, more work. Added to their list of things to do are not only the tasks directly related to their job descriptions but also the added responsibility of continuing to identify people, who may or may not want to be identified, to join the group. Once they join – or regardless of whether they do – they must then bear the responsibility of showing how this nebulous, internal, volunteer group improves their value to the company. As the members of a more experienced generation would say: that’s a tall order.
A post-modern approach to ERGs would not only identify traditional minorities as potential members – perhaps improperly highlighting differences and forcing people to self identify – but would rather be an incubator for training and traditional professional development for any and all employees. These groups could be monitored by both the Chief Diversity Officer and the Chief Development Officer or highest ranking human resource executive. Employee retention is a cross-cultural challenge meaning keeping good people regardless of origin is always hard to do. Part of employee retention, aside from monetary benefits, is training. The thoughtful employee asks, “Am I improving my career positioning by remaining with this company?” If the answer is in the affirmative, employers will rarely have to worry about losing talent to competitors. There are many benefits to this approach:
- Adding buy-in from an executive in HR who’s job description reads “employee development”
- Removing the possible stigma for an employee attending a ‘race-based’ internal group
- Removing the apparent – though often mistaken – exclusion of majority groups
- Recognizing that soon it will be difficult and irrelevant to identify all different cultures in the near future
As women, Latinos and other groups make up a larger part of the workforce, the need and mere possibility of identifying special groups and segregating them from others will become less effective. Paths to success are not exclusive to one gender, race, age, nationality or level of physical capability. Corporate culture must be created, identified and modeled from the top. To listen before speaking, treat others as they would like to be treated, and continually improve your technical and leadership skills are lessons that all employees need reinforced and all organizations can benefit from.
The world is changing and will continue to evolve. For those who are fortunate enough to be in decision making roles around diversity, shine a bright light on “Clarity of the mission.”
Jason Howell is the author of AMERICA: Still the Land of Opportunity, Always a Home for the Brave.” For more insights on success in business and in life, pick up your copy today. Also, be on the lookout for his new book on Patriotic Development™ coming this Spring/Summer (2011).