The Definition of Diversity in the Workplace Has Expanded

News, Spring 2016

COMMITMENT FROM LEADERS AND HONEST CONVERSATIONS ARE REQUIRED

BY KARA SCHWEISS
PHOTOS BY DEBRA S. KAPLAN

Jannette Taylor, Statewide Administrator of Children Services for Lutheran Family Services

When you land on the leadership team page of a corporate website and see only Caucasian, male, middle-aged faces, do you wonder if this company missed the mark on diversity?

Probably so, but these days, diversity can mean so many things: race, gender, ethnicity, age, physical ability, LGBT status, socioeconomic background and more. The new definition of workplace diversity is neither universal nor easy to articulate.

For a hospital, diversity efforts could be about finding ways to bring in more men to the nursing staff. For a law firm, it could be about recruiting women and men of color. For a technology company, it could mean trying to attract and retain older employees. For a nonprofit, it could mean recruiting and retaining promising new graduates also sought after by large companies with more resources.

“The word ‘diversity’ itself is really vague. Often when we say diversity, people immediately think of race,” says Jannette Taylor, statewide administrator of children services for Lutheran Family Services. “It depends on the profession, or what diversity—or the lack thereof—means to the organization.”

Michele Jensen, employee relations senior consultant with Wells Fargo, agrees. “One of the challenges is defining diversity. What is it? It’s going to be different to everyone depending on their experiences, and different dimensions need to be discussed to come to more of a common understanding,” she says.

Whatever the specific workplace diversity goals of an organization are, the prevailing opinion is that diversity is good for business. For instance, for companies that serve the public, a diverse workforce means increased ability to serve a diverse community. A workforce representing a variety of cultures and life experiences brings a broader wealth of knowledge and ideas to the table. And for larger companies, workplace diversity fosters growth by making it possible to better serve a wider group of customers throughout multiple communities.

“Diversity and inclusion makes good business sense, and it’s the right thing to do,” Jensen says. “I’ve worked with Wells Fargo for 18 years, and Wells Fargo’s vision is to satisfy all customers’ financial needs and help them succeed financially, and the most important word is ‘all,’ To do that, we focus on three outcome areas: team member, marketplace and diversity and inclusion. Our greatest resource is our team members; they are what distinguishes us from our competitors. We look at our recruitment, development and retention of our team members, and very important to this is inclusion. If team members don’t feel like they belong, they will leave.”

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Tulani Grundy Meadows, Human Relations/Political Science Instructor at Metropolitan Community College

Before workplace diversity can be improved, employers need to be open to self-scrutiny, says Tulani Grundy Meadows, a human relations/political science instructor at Metropolitan Community College.

“I think one of the greatest challenges is the inability to have honest dialogue about these issues,” Meadows says. “For so long, issues about diversity—particularly about matters of race—have been the third rail: No one wants to go there, right? But we know diverse teams make stronger business, so why aren’t we having these conversations? Successful organizations deal with diversity issues head-on; it’s just smart business. So if we truly say we believe in things like equity, we have to talk about it.”

Taylor agrees. “They need to look at what diversity means to their organization. And then you have to be open to people who can really impact change.”

Talking about diversity doesn’t necessarily mean that workplace leadership is admitting to deliberately trying to exclude certain individuals, or that a lack of diversity is due to malicious intent. Awareness is just a first step in creating a more diverse workforce, according to Meadows.

“You don’t think it’s a problem if you don’t see it,” she says. “I’ve been here since 2009, and I’ve observed more conversations about diversity matters, and that’s great. I think the test then becomes, ‘How do these conversations translate into action?’ And the reality is, we need more bold leadership that’s not afraid to take on these issues.”

Jensen says the leadership team needs to understand why diversity is important and what role they have in creating and maintaining a diverse workplace. “Leaders can be developed, but retention will come through inclusion,” she says. “Employers need to identify and articulate to their employees why diversity is important and how it is going to help their company.”

And the process needs to involve strategy—including a concrete plan and means of measuring progress, she adds, “not just waiting for it to just happen.”

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Carolina Quezada, Executive Director, Latino Center of the Midlands

The process of fostering workplace diversity actually begins outside of the workplace, and sometimes well before the point at which workers are ready to enter the workforce, according to Latino Center of the Midlands Executive Director Carolina Quezada.

“There are a lot of conversations around pipelines: Are there pipelines to developing a diverse workforce in certain sectors?” Quezada says. “Traditionally, the private sector has always tried to work with universities to recruit emerging talent, but with some majors it’s more challenging because there just aren’t enough numbers working in that particular field.”

Recruiting takes more than just reaching out with job openings and compensation packages, Quezada says. The workplace culture, and amenities in and lifestyle of the community itself, are important factors that can make or break hiring efforts.

“I’ve had numerous conversations with individuals in the community about what is happening with our young workforce,” she says. “What is happening with our young, college-educated Latinos? Are they staying in the community? Are they going to other areas where perhaps there’s more diversity?”

Meadows says diverse talent does exist in Omaha, but organizations have to work harder to ensure a diverse slate of candidates. “The challenge then becomes, ‘How do you keep them?’ Ultimately, no one wants to work in a place where no one looks like them. We have to work to make diversity the norm and not the exception. And how do we make Omaha a place where people want to stay and live?”

In the nonprofit sector, Quezada says, organizations must find ways to compete with corporations with deep pockets who are interested in bringing in the same top-notch talent.

“How are we able to attract this young emerging workforce so they’re interested in working at a grassroots level in this community and giving back? We find that this generation, these are young people who are very conscientious, very aware of what’s happening in their community and on a global scale,” she says.

Omaha is widely known as a great place to raise a family, but is that a strong appeal to someone still years away from that stage of life? Fostering a community for young professionals that includes amenities such as cultural attractions, entertainment opportunities and a chance to be meaningfully involved in the community is part of the bigger picture, Quezada says. “I think there are a lot of moving pieces to this puzzle.”

The smaller community—the organization or business—needs to be welcoming to a diverse workforce as well.

“Ideally, you want the most qualified people doing the job. That said, you want to ensure that everybody has equal opportunity to becoming whatever it is they want to become and not find barriers in their way that have nothing to do with their abilities,” Jensen says. “Employers need to create the inclusive environments where everybody is valued for their contributions. Recruiting can bring good people in the door, but it’s not going to keep them. It’s an environment that’s going to keep them. Do they feel appreciated? Do they feel like they belong?”

Quezada adds that career development opportunities are important to retention even for businesses and organizations with attractive entry-level compensation packages and workplace environments. “As we think about pipeline development in our region, we should consider how we are grooming our own talent,” she says. “And so we can see diversity across all sectors and not just entry-level and not just middle-management, but really leadership.”

Meadows is an advocate for starting at the top. “The leadership of your organization matters; it’s a direct reflection of your values. If diversity and equality are important to you, we should see that,” she says. “If you walked into the boardroom of a typical Fortune 500 company and every face was brown, you may think that’s odd. But when will we get to the point where we will walk into a room and an all-white board or an all-male board is equally odd to us?”

A case can also be made for empowering employees to push diversity. “We could do so much as a collective unit if we could get outside from our silos,” Taylor says. “A lot of times as employees, we don’t feel we can impact change, because in America the business model has always been a hierarchy. But there are new leadership models…we need to empower our employees to bring up diversity issues.”

For Meadows, it comes down to everyone working in a place where their identity is respected and valued. “Ultimately, the goal is that you have to feel good in your own skin. It’s our responsibility as a community, as an organization, to create a space where everyone’s voice is heard and valued.”

Progress is being made in workplace diversity among local employers, these professionals say, although it takes self-awareness and determination. Taylor says she’s pleased to see increasing leadership opportunities for women.

“In Omaha we do have a lot of women in leadership roles, and they’re slowly edging their way up. We are building a network where we support each other and empower each other,” she says.

“I have had so many good women around me who have been my unofficial mentors and advocated for me. That’s the benefit of being authentic and building a network.”

Some organizations are openly taking solid steps to improve workplace diversity. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with Omaha Diversity 365 and partner in community initiatives,” Jensen says. “It’s been a great way to share with other employers our best practices and learn from them. We’ve established great relationships, and we find that even though we’re different companies, we share a lot of the same challenges, and it’s nice to be able to talk those through with somebody with a different perspective.”

Looking forward, workforce and leadership diversity across all sectors would paint a nice picture of the future, Taylor says.

“I hope it would be reflective of the real world. If we have more diverse leadership, business would grow and the city would grow. If people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and experiences were running the show, I think we’d be even more effective and more profitable as a city,” she says. W

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