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Benefits of Diversity in the Workplace

Diversity is a popular management topic in many countries and companies. A wide of sweep resources in HR and management time is devoted to diversity in large organizations, especially government, educational and global organizations.

In a publication by the European Commission in November 2003, "fixing" diversity is reported as having significant benefits and costs. Benefits include reduced absenteeism, higher productivity, better attraction and retention of talented people and improved innovation and creativity.

Costs and obstacles to "fixing" diversity are reported to include legal restrictions in holding of diversity data, difficulties in changing organizational culture and lack of awareness amongst organizations of the content, benefits, rationale and mechanisms of diversity policies.

From personal experience and researching the topic I have found that in many cases diversity is equated to equal opportunity for people of different races, religion, sexual preference, physical ability, age and or gender.

For some organizations, it is also equated to compliance with legal or self imposed requirements to employ a distribution of people, which reflects to a decimal point, the distribution of the local population by race, gender etc.

Diversity seems to be such a difficult and hot topic that countless organizations offer their services to train people in diversity, to consult on issues surrounding diversity and to audit organizations on their compliance with "standards" or "best practice" in diversity.

The "standards" are often defined solely in terms of equal opportunity, independent of the organization's goals, strategy and operating environment. It can be argued that the standards are about political correctness rather than embracing true diversity.

For example, one organization in a country with English as the national language, spent years implementing a diversity plan which involved teaching 80% of its workforce to speak Spanish so that the Spanish speaking minority could understand their colleagues.

They found that it made good sense after implementing the diversity plan that to offer English classes to their Spanish speaking employees instead was more effective and cheaper.

Organizations which have persevered with diversity have found that diversity is not about equal opportunity or about quotas or even about race, religion or sexual preference.

True diversity, they find, is in thinking styles, personality, competence and even that sacred cow, values. Whilst it can be argued that religion, sexual preference and upbringing in a different country leads to differences in these parameters, it is the parameters that are important, not the cause.

The cause, in many cases, has become a metaphor for the real difference in people.

Diversity in terms of thinking styles, values and competence leads to debate. In a well led organization, the debate will be about ideas. Debate about ideas is the engine room of innovation. Innovation is the precursor to productivity improvements which is the precursor to generating value and thereby, wealth.

The value placed on ideas is not limited to the leadership team, as a true embracing of diversity will equally welcome ideas from middle management and from the coal face. It is my experience that the best and most pragmatic ideas come from the coal face and middle management.

Diversity has a well known cousin in empowerment. Proper empowerment where people are given the competence, authority and data needed to complete a task at the lowest level possible in the organization encourages diversity.

Embracing diversity is more about celebrating individual differences than it is about cultural differences, an overplayed metaphor in today's media dominated world.

Making the mistake of seeing diversity as celebrating differences ascribed to a metaphor for country of birth or lineage stops organizations benefiting from developing an organizational culture which treats people on the merit of their individual contribution.

In my view, the opposite of diversity is when leaders promote and keep around them people who are of like mind and behaviour. By implementing a formal or informal succession plan which keeps the leadership team having the same skills and behaviours, they miss benefits of a different voice.

Leaders who resist diversity see the world only through their own eyes and are very limited in their ability to relate to their external stakeholders who are more likely to form a diverse group.

Additionally, they are likely to have a band of "yes men" as their management team, further reducing the level of debate and therefore, innovation.

Leaders who have a team of clones or an unchanging style of team also miss positive and negative changes in their operating environment. As the environment changes, new mindsets are required to even be able to observe the changes, let alone respond to them.

Simply counting heads as a measure of diversity does not work. The valuing of difference in ideas has to be integrated into the way organizations work.

Organizations that succeed have a leadership team that sets the tone by valuing and encouraging difference in the management team.

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