Cultural Diversity in the Workplace: The Source of Unlimited Potential

Scott Esposito

Every progressive company on the planet applies some focus and attention to diversity in the workplace. The basic goal is a familiar one: to build an internal workforce profile that mirrors the available external labor market. Many tactics and initiatives are directed toward achieving this desirable objective – from pipeline recruiting programs to innovative development processes. To be sure, all or most of the Fortune 500 have matured beyond compliance with EEOC directives and labor laws. However, how many companies have developed a strategy to reap the competitive and performance benefits that only a diverse workforce can provide?

In this article, I offer some thoughts and insights on the strategic value and benefits of diversity in the workplace, cultural attributes that provide the prime conditions to harness the benefits of diversity and some pitfalls to avoid when building a culturally diverse workplace.

Beyond Race & Gender

It is easy to limit our thinking and accept a parochial definition of diversity. Grouping age, race, sexual orientation and gender together provide us with a definable way to view and understand workplace diversity. Further, our operational instincts and need for structure lead us to manage diversity as a set of institutionalized programs, or special categories to evaluate diversity within major processes such as hiring, development, attrition and leadership succession. We are all familiar with the drill, develop and track the metrics, how many, what type and at what rate. Undoubtedly, understanding and measuring progress in building a diverse workforce must remain at the center of attention. However, the missed opportunity is viewing diversity as a state of being rather than a source of better ideas and decisions.

Benefits of Diversity in the Workplace

Earlier in my career, I was tasked with building a new security organization to address the growing threat of terrorism, and at the time, the appearance of anthrax laced mail. With 20 branch operations across the US, a regional management model with corporate oversight was established for this new organization. The staffing of leaders could have been as simple as a hiring the most experienced corporate security professionals available. However, given the seriousness of the threat and complexity associated with maintaining a secure chain of custody for product distribution, it was decided that a diverse group of security professional, collaborating together in a team environment, would provide the best talent solution. After gathering a team of hand selected managers, the group composition included a former police chief, postal inspector, FBI agent, military intelligence officer and a counter terrorism expert from the special forces. Numerically, the diversity of this group was easy to measure, but the real value of assembling this broad team was apparent at the first strategy session they held together. For me, it demonstrated the power of applying diverse thought, ideas and opinions to solve complex business problems. When all is said and done, diversity is not the constituents of the group but the quality of the results that are produced.

Moving the Diversity Agenda Forward

For organizations that have not evolved beyond the numbers, the first step is to clearly establish and promote the benefits of diversity in the workplace – what do we want to achieve, how will it benefit our customers and what will be the measurable impact on products and services? This is the type of connection to diversity that provides meaning and allows workers to process it on an intellectual level.

So, what are some of the cultural attributes that help organization harness the power of workplace diversity?

  • An inclusive work environment
  • Deploying teams that are empowered to act
  • Valuing and demanding respect – personal and professional
  • Leaders who serve as mentor, coach, sponsor and champion
  • Rewarding behaviors that support cultural diversity
  • Relationship building, internal and external
  • Incorporating diversity into learning programs
  • Investing in the education front-line leaders
  • Flexibility in job design and work arrangements

While this is not an exhaustive list, the items highlighted stand out, in my mind, as the ones providing a high degree traction and leverage. In essence, these would be among the attributes of any high performing organization.

Final Considerations

For companies consciously undertaking the work of promoting and building cultural diversity, the biggest mistake is to roll it out as yet another company program – more training to take, another poster on the wall. Employees should embrace diversity as a value, a way of doing business and the best means of improving performance. Cultural diversity must be a strategy, supported by goals and objectives and communicated through the words and actions of the leadership team. Finally, every organization must perform the introspection necessary to uncover and fix policies, procedures and systems that are inconsistent with the future state. All the pieces must fit together and make sense.

Diversity should describe the extent of our thoughtfulness in generating ideas and solving problems, not just the composition of the workforce.