What is Real Diversity? (And Why Do Most Organizations Hate It?)

Growing up in a Jewish home, I never really understood what it was like to know the disappointment a child feels when he finally learns there is no Santa. That was until recently. After 11 years of having my own consulting practice, I recently decided to join a large and quickly-growing human resource consulting practice. A friend who worked there told me it was a good place to work, and I went through four months of interviews and psychological assessments. I read the books that they had written and were familiar with their good reputation for teaching leadership and best employment practices to many organizations. They were a very high-end consulting firm that charged top dollar and seemed to have a good reputation. I was going to be working with people who would understand and value what made me different. I was going to learn how these great thinkers were able to apply what they taught to create what should be the perfect workplace, which I was going to be joining.

Boy, was I wrong! No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.

My "onboarding" and "‘welcome to the company" consisted of my manager greeting me on the first day with "There is your desk. I know today is going to be a write-off. I’ve gotta go." My next opportunity to sit down with her one-on-one was a month later, when she blasted me for "not fitting in" and then fired me a week later because I "didn’t have the ‘X’ factor." What is the "X" factor? It is some nebulous, non-measurable intangible that I seemed to be inoculated against. "You just don’t fit in here," I was told. "You are too different." I was terminated but still had to finish my only client assignment through them because the client liked my work. Now I really understand why people don’t like consultants.

It was at that moment that I truly understood what diversity means and why so few organizations understand and promote it.

Superficial Diversity

Ask any organization about workplace diversity. They will show you these wonderful, colorful pie charts (boy, do organizations love colorful pie charts!), and they will tell you how many people are in various age ranges, of different nationalities, backgrounds, colors, religions, sexes and whatever other breakdown you want. "Hey, look how diverse our organization is," they proudly proclaim. They even hire high-priced consultants who have Ph.D.s, like my former manager, to tell them how important diversity is in doing business. What they neglect to tell anybody, or even realize themselves, is that this is not real diversity. Real diversity is not measured by skin color, religion, age, sex or a number of other superficial benchmarks. Although having a different background may help people think differently, it does not necessarily mean that people do differ. For instance, there is less diversity between George Bush and Condi Rice or between Whoopi Goldberg and John Kerry than there is between my older brother and myself.

There was a scene in the remake of the movie The Stepford Wives where the gay character is initiated into the "Men’s Club" and they tell him about how they have transformed their wives. "We are open minded about lifestyle choices," says the character Mike. "We don’t care about your partner. We can make him into a Stepford wife." It did not matter if you were gay or straight, as long you thought like everybody else. This is the same with many organizations. We live in a global society. There are not glass ceilings and old "boys’ clubs" like there were even 15 years ago. There are laws in place to ensure employment is not based on differences in gender, nationality, etc. Stepford, Connecticut, could accept gay people and African Americans, it seemed, as long as they conformed their thinking to the groupthink. Like the consulting firm, all differences were accepted as long as you thought and acted just like everybody else. In other words, all new ideas are welcome as long as they are just like your manager’s!

A Definition of Real Diversity

Real diversity should be defined as people thinking differently. This makes sense because if an organization has everyone with the same "X" factor, the conclusions and ideas they develop will all be uniform. They will be, by definition, a step behind the cutting edge. Cutting-edge thinking means challenging the norm. I know a very successful businessperson who told me to always hire your enemies. "They will tell you what your friends may be afraid to say," he told me. Yet, organizations work very hard to find people who "fit" in the culture. Valuing corporate experience over entrepreneurship means the organization really wants people who keep their heads low—people who won’t rock the boat. The idea is if you’re not a threat to your boss’s ego, you will be OK.

What can you do?

There are some simple, yet complex, steps you can take to ensure your organization embraces and retains the best people with the greatest diversity:

  • Understand your own culture. There is the culture that people think they have and the one they really have, and, quite often, there is a big gap between the two. You need to understand if the culture you have is rewarding and embracing diverse thinking or squelching it. It is important to know if people are being rewarded in the real sense for keeping their heads low and conforming.
  • Have proper procedures for "onboarding" new hires. The irony of my time at the consulting practice was that the program I was writing for a client was on proper onboarding. If the company followed its own advice, none of the problems would have arisen. Have a plan ready for the new hire that clearly communicates his or her role, resources, timetable and expectations. Have projects ready for inclusion and, if he or she offers a unique skill that is not common in the organization, have a plan ready to communicate that skill to others.
  • Have a "firing" process. With the consulting firm, I went through a four month process. They did every conceivable test on me, short of having me run through a maze and ring a bell to get some cheese. Yet it just took one person making a spur of the moment decision to terminate my employment. Make the "firing" process as thought out as your hiring process.

For me, the story has a happy ending. I recently joined a consulting firm that is allowing me to do some of the most interesting and cutting-edge work I have ever done in my career. It’s a company that understands that innovation and risk taking are the core of any organization’s ability to grow and thrive. They embrace true diversity by creating an environment that not just encourages, but embraces different thinking. It is a place where not everybody has to have the "X" factor in order to be a part of the team.

There is and always will be a war for top talent. If you don’t incorporate the diversity that comes from having the best talent available, your competitors will—and they will thrive while you work to survive.

Michael Rosenberg is a partner at Achieveblue and the author of The Flexible Thinker and the co-author of The Flexible Thinker: A Guide to Extreme Career Performance.