What Diversity Really Means

There was a pretty fantastic Twitter conversation happening last week on #TChat; it was about diversity. Be sure to check out the preview on MonsterThinking and the #TChat recap.

It was during this conversation that I was reminded of how much I hate the word diversity.

Picture an HR professional being called “personnel” by his or her new CEO and that pretty much captures my reaction.

The word diversity conjures up recollections of:

  • Lame Diversity Day potlucks where departments prepare food from another culture.
  • Feeling proud of a parent company’s sponsorship of the NAACP Image Awards only to discover a judge ordered them to do so because of a class action discrimination lawsuit.
  • A ridiculous attempt to make a newly hired, employee with MS feel “welcome” by telling her peers they have to walk around with a cane for a day.
  • The Diversity Department encouraging gay employees to come out to their coworkers without regard or preparation for the potential fall out and devastating emotional impact that could, and did occur. (Not to mention the resulting drop in productivity, team interventions, EAP referrals and leadership coaching that had to be done after.)

These are all true stories by the way.

It’s these kind of well-intentioned, but poorly planned and executed programs that at best, cause leaders to roll their eyes and at worst, cause them to become more entrenched in their resistance.

So should we give up? Should we stop trying to influence corporate cultures to recognize the importance and value of differences? Absolutely not!

But we need to be realistic about what it takes to change culture and mindset.

The core of diversity lies in understanding that we are better performers, better leaders, better service providers and better people when we surround ourselves with those who are different from us. However, the reality is that most adults are more comfortable with people who are just like them.

Our role is to help leaders move beyond their opposition to contradictory perspectives. It’s to help them move from valuing individuality to valuing what each individual contributes to a team. Our role is to help the highly analytical and highly creative to work together harmoniously instead of a perpetuating an adversarial relationship. This is what having a diversity mindset is all about.

A freakin’ pot luck isn’t going to fix that people.

The language we need to use with executives is relatability to consumers, innovation, increased sales, improved stock prices for shareholders and more profits. These are all natural outcomes of a diversity mindset. The mistake most HR leaders and diversity directors make is talking about this topic in terms of race, gender, age, sexual preference and the EEOC. When we bombard leaders with that language, we relegate this hugely important initiative to the realm of legal imperative instead of business necessity.

Let me conclude by addressing those of you who are going to call me a jaded, former HR professional. You’re right. I am. More importantly, I care deeply about the ethical success of American business; small and large, public and private.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours?

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