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Diversity Diva

Should A Diversity Checklist Be On Your To-Do List?

Michelle T. Johnson
Contributor: Michelle T. Johnson
Posted: 08/01/2011

A colleague called me the other day, way bent out of shape, because her company had put into place a new self-reported "diversity checklist" requirement as part of the annual performance evaluation process.

At the place where this person, who I’ll call Shannon, works, the concept of a diversity checklist had been a requirement for senior management for years. Shannon didn’t have a problem with that. It was the rank-and-file workers having to jump through those hoops that she didn’t like.

The checklist had items on it such as: read a book written by a person of a different race, attend a multicultural event, watch a movie about someone from another culture, etc.

Now at the beginning of the conversation, Shannon’s concern was the issue of the company "requiring" them to do certain things in their free time that contributed to diversity. That seemed heavy-handed, offensive and unfair to Shannon.

And to a certain extent, I did see her point.

Businesses and organizations should encourage its employees to understand and respect the differences of others. At the very least, employers need to make sure that people aren’t using the multitude of differences between people to make unfair and possibly illegal employment decisions.

But that’s just in the workplace. I tend to agree with Shannon that once you start "grading" people on the personal choices they make in their non-work lives that don’t directly impact the workplace, it gets a little dicey.

However, Shannon eventually got to what her real point of dispute with the new policy was. And that’s where we abruptly parted company.

In her mind, diversity was a term meant only to describe people who aren’t white, straight and of Judeo-Christian origin. So, to her, it seemed unfair that people who were already in a diversity group got to get "credit" for living their regular lives.

For example, to her, a gay co-worker who went to a gay pride event one weekend would get "credit" on the diversity checklist event, which she just didn’t think was fair.

I explained that she was making the assumption that a gay pride event was a diverse event because it wasn’t "normal" or "mainstream" instead of looking at the point of the diversity checklist, which was to encourage everyone to go outside of the box and expose their minds to what is diverse for that individual.

In the gay pride event example, I pointed out that while there was little likelihood of any of her gay co-workers asking her or other straight co-workers to attend a gay pride event over the weekend, there was a large likelihood that many gay or lesbian co-workers have been invited to the weddings and showers of their straight co-workers without an ounce of thought as to whether that individual might feel uncomfortable or just plain irritated.

At the heart of her concern exists many misconceptions about diversity and the point of the checklist.

To some, it will look like an Orwellian attempt to monitor how people live. But really, a diversity checklist is a painless way to encourage people to be open to the differences of others, with the hope that this transfers into accepting differences in the workplace.

The unpleasant truth is that a big company may feel that the only way they can get its workers to be more open to diversity is to make it a condition of their performance evaluations.

I pointed out to Shannon, that just on the basis of race alone, every time I came to work, I would get a "point" for diversity because all my jobs and industries I’ve been involved in have been predominantly white. However, if all my experiences (again, just sticking to race) involved just black people and white people, I would lose points on diversity because those aren’t the only two races of people who exist.

Outside of race, there are dozens of way that people avoid exposing their minds to anything or anyone that makes them uncomfortable or that forces them to confront assumptions. Diversity checklists are a seemingly benign way to encourage that to happen.

But at the end of the day, all diversity checklists that deal with personal choices are a game of smoke and mirrors. People can check anything they want to in order to comply with expectations and no one will have the ability to verify that you really read that book or attended that cultural festival.

Every controversy or disagreement in the workplace holds the seed to be a learning opportunity. And as Shannon and the others who grumble about the diversity checklist move forward, maybe they’ll learn more about diversity than they planned to anyway.

The irony about making the diversity checklist mandatory is that the people who most need to drift outside their comfort zones will be the ones with the fewest items to check. People who glory in dealing with different cultures and comfortably get along with just about anyone will laugh at the fact that it’s now a work requirement to do what they already do for fun.
Michelle T. Johnson
Contributor: Michelle T. Johnson
Posted: 08/01/2011