Diverse Workforce Requires Balanced HR Leadership

By Glenn Gutmacher

Dec. 1, 1998

The human resources department is often called upon to lead the way when companies commit to managing or valuing diversity. The problem is that there are as many ways to approach the task of putting together a diversity initiative as there are companies trying-and there really are no absolutes because of all the variables.

Organizations come in all sizes and shapes, with staffs ranging from mostly homogeneous to totally diverse. In addition, the concepts involved in diversity management are new enough that even its practitioners don’t always have a consensus. Some guidelines have emerged, however, based on what has (and has not) worked for many of these organizations.

The human resources department can be the catalyst that finds and develops opportunities and resources that support the company’s diversity program. Human resources is the researcher that gathers the comprehensive information the organization will need to develop an effective initiative. The department may be the most effective advocate for the program, using a sort of “shuttle diplomacy” between departments, upper management, the diversity task force, and different employee groups to ensure that the intent and benefits of the initiative are well understood.

In the same way, human resources can be a problem-solver. They find funding sources, for example, and make sure that the staff has enough time to attend diversity task force meetings. The department will often be called upon to be a facilitator, a valuable-if challenging-role, since many of the task force participants will not have the necessary skills to communicate across cultures or genders. Human resources, appropriately, may be called upon to demonstrate communication techniques and open safe channels of interaction.

Finally, human resources is an influencer, wise to the political climate of the organization and able to use this knowledge to protect and nurture the fledgling diversity program. Human resources supports the efforts of all participants, and thinks strategically, ever careful to include long-term as well as short-term goals into the overall planning.

To avoid mistakes, false starts and frustrations, it is also helpful to understand what the role of human resources should not be. It is not, for example, desirable for the human resources department to be the sole, or even primary, focus of the diversity strategy.

Dealing effectively with diversity-learning not just to manage, but to thrive on the rich mosaic of differences-is an issue for all areas of the organization. If efforts to manage diversity are seen as “just another human resources program” (either a one-time event or affirmative action with a new name), they will not work.

What is required is real change-in attitudes, practices, structure and policies-from the executive suite down. The human resources manager should not be the sole person responsible for driving the diversity initiative. Companies must spread out the responsibility, or the program may die early.

Many organizations have used the following five steps as a basic framework for setting up successful diversity initiatives:

  1. Create a diversity task force.
    A diversity task force can provide the leadership, focus and continuity to direct your company’s diversity effort. Frequently, its first order of business will be to create a “vision” or mission statement that reflects the organization’s goals in beginning the diversity program.

    Human resources will often be responsible for putting this task force together. Here are some pointers: Involve a broad cross section of employees when choosing group members; selected people should represent different races, genders, ages, sexual orientations and physical abilities. Involve individuals from different levels and departments within the organization, as well as people with expertise and those with basic knowledge of diversity issues.

    Publicize the task force’s purpose and focus to attract members. Explain what will be expected of them and talk about the benefits of both of serving on the task force and the ultimate improvements expected for the company as a whole. Human resources will probably need to facilitate early meetings, helping the group define responsibilities.

    The task force should focus most of its time and energy on putting together a strategy for way to connect the initiative with other business goals. A well-designed and well-implemented cultural audit will provide the information the task force needs to meet its goals.
  2. Design a cultural audit.

    When properly designed and administered, the cultural audit will identify an organization’s strengths, climate, issues, understanding, obstacles and challenges. The audit might suggest possible starting points for the diversity initiative, help assess training needs or identify legal issues.

    Throughout the process, the audit will draw on a broad spectrum of people from throughout the organization. The design should include both qualitative data (from focus groups and interviews), and quantitative information (from surveys).

    A cultural audit provides the empirical data that can suggest future directions and actions to take. Its goal is to provide a diversity “climate” overview, enabling leaders and trainers to understand all issues and concerns. As clearly as possible, the audit strives to tell your organization where it is now.

    The first step in the process is to write an “inventory survey” tailored to the organization’s culture and needs. This survey will generate data useful in developing the strategic plan for diversity. It should be answered anonymously by a representative cross section of employees or, if time permits, by everyone in the organization.

    Focus groups are the next step, comprised of four to six people with a common trait. For example, there could be a focus group of older workers, one of night-shift workers, one of women. These focus groups will provide insights into how each separate group views the questions or situations proposed to them. Deep-seated organizational issues can often be revealed by contrasting the responses of the various groups.

    Individual interviews can probe more deeply into the way people perceive diversity within their organization. Thirty minutes is enough time to allow for this one-on-one phase. Open-ended questions work best. The perspective of outsiders-vendors, customers, temporaries-can also add valuable and objective information. Find some way to include their comments in the audit.
  3. Develop the overall strategy.
    The next step is to take all of the information and forge it into an overall strategic diversity plan for the organization. While these plans vary the same as the organizations they serve, successful plans include these elements:
      • Senior management has committed to the plan-it is not a surprise and their input has been solicited and included.
      • The plan links diversity with other organizational strategies and initiatives, such as customer service, continuous improvement and employee recognition.
      • The plan clearly outlines long-term strategies as well as short-term actions.
      • Existing systems are used to carry out the plan whenever possible.
      • Included is an ongoing evaluation system that will give feedback quickly across the whole organization.
      • Success criteria will be clearly stated and measurable.
      • The plan will provide guidance for trainers in both designing and delivering diversity training.

  4. Deliver training.
    Training is just part of the strategy for implementing a diversity initiative, but it can “anchor” the initiative in several important ways. Without discussing actual training design, some of the unique characteristics of diversity training should be pointed out.

    The training has to be planted firmly in the real world of business-participants must clearly see how the diversity initiative ties to the bottom line. The initiative needs support throughout the organization; to gain that support, diversity needs to be seen by everyone as an issue. Diversity training cannot be a one-time event. Like safety initiatives, it will work only if its tenets and corresponding behaviors are used every day.

    Diversity training often deals with perception and awareness, and may help change both. Everyone must be included in diversity training at all levels in the organization. Diversity training has a strong emotional content, and the trainer is not immune from these emotions. Training sometimes gets personal, requiring extreme skill and sensitivity on the part of the trainers.

    Finally, because co-facilitation models teamwork, it is an effective approach for diversity training. A pair of trainers who are different in some physical way or who use totally different styles give participants an opportunity to learn that differences can complement and benefit a team. Two facilitators can also be helpful if the discussion becomes difficult or hard to manage. Again, emotions run high in diversity training classrooms.
  5. Measure its effectiveness.
    It is a real challenge to measure whether all the meetings, policy changes, written information and trainings have had the desired effect. What does “valuing” diversity really mean, and is it happening? Are the lessons of consciousness raising and behavior modification transferring to the job?

    Several quantitative measurements have been used with success. For example, some organizations ask participants to develop personal action plans before leaving the course, then follow up over time. Some conduct “before and after” surveys to test awareness building.

    An organization can check the number of equal employment opportunity (EEO) complaints received before the diversity instruction. How do they compare with those after the training? (Of course, complaints always increase immediately after a training. You need to take samplings over time.)

    Look at retention figures. Review expenses for EEO-related litigation. Determine what your exit interviews tell you about why people leave the organization. An intuitive argument suggests that an employee is not working at his or her best when faced with a frustrating employer or inhibiting workplace and the organization is adversely affected.

    There is also the empirical method: Take a walk through the company lunchroom or keep an eye open at the company picnic. Compare the racial or ethnic segregation that can be observed now to a time before the diversity initiative was in place.

    With the balanced leadership of human resources and the sincere efforts of everyone involved, the workplace can be fair and free of hostility. This workplace will function smoothly, creatively and productively. It will belong to an organization that will reach out profitably to its diverse markets and customers with the right messages and the right goods and services.

    The company that successfully implements a diversity initiative will be healthy, vital and fit to compete in today’s tougher marketplace.

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