The New Rules for a Diverse Workplace

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Diversity in business today makes good sense. Unfortunately, many companies don’t manage their diversity initiatives effectively, resulting in the one thing they were aiming to avoid: discrimination.

When businesses use diversity to understand different types of customers, develop products or services that are competitive, and gain insight on future industry trends, they're using diversity initiatives correctly. However, when their diversity programs turn into a quota system and hiring managers overlook key talent just to meet a number in a spreadsheet, that's when the bottom falls out. So, if your diversity program consists of saying, "We need x number of women (or Hispanics or Asians or African Americans…you get the idea) in our company," then you've lost focus on the real purpose of diversity initiatives, and you're setting yourself up for lawsuits.

One of the main problems with many diversity programs is that managers get "credit" for bringing in outsiders-those future superstars who rarely work out. They then spend time and money training these newcomers and teaching them the industry. Since these diverse candidates are highly sought after in the job marketplace, chances are high that they'll quickly leave in pursuit of the next great opportunity well before your company has seen any return on the investment you've already made in them. All the while these same hiring managers are overlooking diverse candidates who are already in their organizations. Realize that an effective diversity program will strengthen the people who are already in the company, not seek to bring in outsiders who fit a certain category.

The fact is that true diversity goes beyond a person's race, ethnicity, or gender and actually includes a person's ideas, opinions, and technical expertise. Use the following guidelines to ensure that your diversity plan encompasses the total package a person brings to the table and to make your diversity initiative both effective and productive.

Instill Accountability

Diversity without accountability never works. That is, if you hire someone just so you can check a box on a form and meet some quota, but you don't hold that new hire truly accountable for results, then you're setting the company up for failure. Too many companies let poor performers slide just because they need that person on board to meet their diversity numbers. But when that happens, not only does the company suffer because that one employee isn't working to his or her potential, but as others in the company witness what one person can "get away with," they'll either become disgruntled and leave, or they'll adopt the poor performer's work habits.

In lieu of diversity, companies need to create programs that honor the uniqueness of every employee as it relates to the business model. For example, rather than hire someone based on gender or race, how about hiring the person because he or she is different and the person's ideas will help your organization make a better product? Maybe that potential candidate understands your customers more, or has experience in a key area your company wants to expand into. That's true diversity. Then, when you tie accountability measures to those unique things the person brings to the mix (for example, how many customers he or she can really bring in or what new developments the person can help create), you have a diversity initiative that adds value to your company's bottom line.

Create Clearly Defined Objectives

Companies that are recruiting to accomplish diversity objectives have to be honest in their definitions of what is expected in terms of workplace contribution. In other words, why are you really hiring this woman, African American, Hispanic, etc.? What do you want his or her unique viewpoint and background to bring to the team? For example, one U.S. automobile manufacturer set out to create a compact car to be sold in India. They assembled their team, made their plans, and then created the first prototype automobile. When they unveiled the prototype to a focus group of Indians and invited them to sit inside and give their opinions on the car, not one of the Indians present could fit in the car because of their head turbans. There wasn't enough headroom. Wouldn't it have been smart for that car manufacturer to have someone from India on the development team? That person's key objective could have been to give insight into Indian culture, needs, likes, and dislikes.

As this example illustrates, diversity can keep you from making a lot of mistakes. It can provide you with insight into a group that you may not ordinarily get if you are outside that group. So for diversity to work, each member of your diverse team needs to have a clearly defined objective of what he or she contributes to the project, the team, and the company. Only then are you harnessing the real power behind diversity initiatives.

Reward People Based On What's Controllable

You can't control what gender you are. You can't control what race or ethnicity you're born into. Rewarding people for what they can't control does not make good business sense. Rather, reward people for what they can control, such as their contribution, their performance, their skill development, their loyalty, etc. All those things that people can control should always outweigh the things they have no control over.

When you reward the uncontrollable, you end up in a situation of diversity gone wild. Diversity gone wild can cost a company an incredible amount of money in lost productivity, litigation expenses, and poor employee morale. Therefore, look at the real contributions people give your company and reward those efforts. Make known throughout your organization what's being rewarded and why. Show how diverse viewpoints and skill sets add value to the team. When people feel valued for their hard work and accomplishments rather than something they have no control over, they'll develop a greater sense of pride about their work and will want to be active contributors to the company's success.

Diversity Works

Diversity is definitely a good thing; you simply have to manage the program appropriately. In fact, if you do not manage your diversity program, then you better put more money in your litigation budget because the lawsuits will come.

In our haste to be politically correct and make everyone feel welcome, let's not forget the real reason diversity works for business: it gives companies a greater way to connect to customers and provide valuable offerings that meet the customers' needs. To that end, let's honor the uniqueness of every employee, rather than his or her race, ethnicity, or gender. Only then can every employee feel valued and make a unique contribution to the business model-one that positively impacts the customers' experience with our company, as well as the bottom line.

About the Author

Clifton Lambreth has worked for the Ford Motor Company for more than twenty years in a variety of positions, including marketing, customer service, finance, operations, and college recruitment at Cornell University, University of Pennsylvania, Johnson Business School, and Wharton Business School. A graduate of the MBA program at Western Carolina University, he is the CEO of Daniel Bradley Matthews Inc., where he provides strategic automotive and marketing consulting. For more information, please visit or email
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