This should go without saying, but a diverse workplace is a better workplace—not just for employees, but for the company, too. The more people you have from a wide variety of backgrounds, with the resulting mix of experiences and points of view, the more likely you are to collectively think outside the box. You’ll also get a broader set of skills across the workforce, and more people who better understand your (diverse) customer base. A successful organization will hire and promote employees regardless of race, sexual orientation, age, religion, or any other differentiator.
Sadly, most companies don’t live up to this ideal. According to Fast Company, white men occupy 85% of high-paying boardroom positions, but they represent only 38% of the U.S. workforce. Women comprise around 10% of executive management positions among companies in the S&P 1500, according to American Progress, while Blacks hold less than 5% of executive-level jobs.
The irony is that those very same white executives claim to believe that diversity is key to innovation, according to a Forbes Insights survey on the topic. “For global companies, diversity is no longer simply a matter of creating a heterogeneous workforce, but using that workforce to innovate and give it a competitive advantage in the marketplace,” the report states. Not surprisingly, many of those same respondents acknowledge that their efforts to create that diversity have not been successful—especially when it comes to age and disability.
One of the reasons for that gap may come down to education, according to Forbes. While the percentage of minorities in the population is growing by double digits, minorities also have the lowest overall levels of education—and that’s a problem when almost 75% of all US jobs require advanced skills and, often, a college degree. Of course, this doesn’t explain the gap between women and men, since the former make up a larger percentage of college graduates. And regardless, companies shouldn’t let wider demographic factors affect their own diversity efforts, especially considering the impact on the bottom line.
Indeed, no business should emphasize diversity just for the perceived PR value, or the desire to appease certain stakeholders. Rather, they should embrace a workplace that’s rich in variety because it will be a better, stronger, and more agile place to work than a homogeneous one. And that will spark creativity, engagement, productivity, and success.
Start by acknowledging your mission. Make it public, let all employees know your intentions, brainstorm ways to attract a more diverse candidate pool, and rethink the criteria you use to evaluate new candidates and promote employees. Discrimination is often systemic: it’s not that any one hiring manager is racist or sexist, it’s that the criteria the company tells him to use to judge candidates end up hurting women and minorities—with no measurable advantage to the organization.
Shine a spotlight on corporate culture—is the workplace you’ve created truly welcoming to people of all sexes, races, and backgrounds? (How do you know? Ask.) Train managers and other leaders to recognize their own implicit biases, and then work with lower-level employees to address and mitigate the same.
Create a mentorship program designed to connect underrepresented workers to current managers and executives, with the express intent of grooming them for higher positions in the organization. But don’t just expect lower-level employees to embrace and echo the traits reflected in the current leadership corps. Ask them how they can bring their own methods, experiences, and knowledge to bear on the company’s business processes; you may be surprised to learn that doing it the way it’s always been done (usually by white men) isn’t always the best way to do it for future success.
Focus on flexibility. One reason women and minorities don’t climb the corporate ranks is that their culture, religion, or lifestyle simply doesn’t conform to a traditional workaday schedule. Let employees work remotely whenever possible and desired. Don’t just pay lip service to personal time off—actively encourage (or even mandate) that employees use it (executives should lead by example here, as elsewhere). Evaluate people based on their results, as well as the innovation, enthusiasm, and focus they bring to the company—not the hours logged at their desks or on the road.
Finally, give fair consideration to whether the biases you have in place are even reflective of reality. I once had a senior executive tell me the reason there was only one female partner at the organization (out of 20) was because women wanted to have time with their kids at nights and on weekends—but partners were expected to be available 24/7. Yet when I asked why that was, he couldn’t give me a reason—in fact, almost all business was conducted Monday through Friday during a reasonable facsimile of standard business hours. His bias had nothing to do with the reality on the ground.