Diversity and the Bottom Line (Tip of the Month)

May 30, 2012

Mention the word ‘diversity’ in a company and the reactions you get will be, well, diverse: a knowing wink, attesting to the “yeah, we’ve checked THAT box” attitude; a rolling of the eyes and inward groans, indicating a “we do it because quotas are required” environment; a shrug of the shoulders and a heavy sigh, illustrative of HR’s upcoming annual diversity training requirement, but with no real understanding or concern for why it’s required. Or you may get an enthusiastic and whole-hearted response of “Hey! Have you seen last quarter’s financials?” Wait…what the….huh? Last quarter’s financials? What does that have to do with diversity?

Starting with the challenges women faced at the close of WWII when men returned from fighting overseas and women were no longer needed in the factories, there has been tension in the workplace based on changing demographics. Jump forward a couple of decades, and tensions ratcheted up with the focus on Affirmative Action programs and racial inequality. Move past the turn of the last century, and according to Thomas Friedman, the world became flat with economic globalization and an even broader cultural mix. Toss in the dizzying pace of technological advances, and the diversity blender now includes the need to adapt across generations: Gen X, Gen Y, the Millenials, and most recently, “Generation Flux.” These are candidates or employees who demonstrate a characteristic called ‘learning agility.’ They possess a pool of experience that spans various time frames, multiple industries, and perhaps even multiple careers, but they are not necessarily confined to a particular age group or demographic. They have demonstrated the capability to adapt to new and changing environments, and can embrace ambiguity as the new status quo. Their leadership skills are brought to bear by establishing order for others in an uncertain and constantly changing environment.

The relationship between corporate performance and diversity is well-researched and well-documented. Catalyst, an organization originally established in 1962 to increase women’s access to professional opportunities, published a report* not long ago that encompasses studies undertaken between 2005 and 2010, and which highlights some truly intriguing conclusions:

*See “Why Diversity Matters” © 2010 Catalyst Inc., for full details and eye-popping corporate performance data.

Diversity is no longer simply a male/female or black/white dichotomy. It is a full spectrum and a broad panorama of thoughts, ideas, attitudes, and energies. While it can be overwhelming to contemplate, opportunities abound to leverage this dynamic. I can’t attest to when the concept of diversity became mainstream, but I do admit to being old enough to remember when ‘diversity training’ and ‘sensitivity training’ were terms that were used interchangeably, and neither was particularly well-regarded. Having been accepted to one of the earliest classes that admitted women into the US Air Force Academy, I know the current business landscape and environment are notably different now than they were then. I’d like to think it’s because we’ve all discovered our higher selves, and have learned to value the intrinsic capabilities and strengths that each of us possesses. That might be the case. It may also be the recognition and knowledge that a company with a diverse workforce probably also has a pretty healthy balance sheet. It may not be the perfect reason to embrace diversity, but it’s a start–and I’ll take it.

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