Thursday, October 15, 2020

Fostering diversity in the workplace


In response to social unrest taking place across the country, countless corporations issued statements citing the need for change, whether in society or within their domain. Much of that was little more than marketing, playing to the masses to look good and gain favor.


But, many organizations, especially small businesses because of their more direct and real connection to people, have legitimately become focused on improving the diversity of their employees and customers in an effort to be better corporate and individual citizens.


To those actually attempting to change and do good, it can seem like a daunting task: How do you efficiently and effectively change the culture in your company, community and country?


It’s a question that’s been posed to me often. Whenever we give group tours at the plant – whether it’s Leadership Niagara, college classes, or homeschoolers – the debriefing at the end usually features attendees mentioning how different our workplace looks. My team is 40% diverse in a city that’s 4% diverse, a county that’s 14%. There are 7 countries of birth here as well as 5 religions, multiple ethnicities, and 180 men and women working together. It’s a melting pot.


When I respond to them about how we do it and how it works, it’s best identified by what we might call the Four Es of Diversity: Education, enlightenment, engagement, and empowerment.


In any organization, it all starts at the top. Leaders have to know their people, their consumers, and their communities. You have to educate yourself on the world around you whether directly (personal inquiry of marginalized populations and/or volunteer service in the trenches) or indirectly (consuming and thoughtfully analyzing local, national and global news). You have to understand the nuances of humanity, the background of each person and the world from which they came. Leaders – and their organizations – are well served by inquisitiveness and a hunger for knowledge.


Once those in leadership possess the understanding, it must be shared. Enlighten others. When we began to have Burmese refugees working at the plant I educated my entire workforce on where they came from and the incredible atrocities they faced in Myanmar. That served to inspire others to help our new friends pursue the American Dream. And, in those earlier-mentioned plant tours, I often speak of the woes faced by men of color who came from prison and need employment and deserve a second chance at life typically not or slowly provided by society. Mentioning how many former convicts are at the plant and how they’ve risen above their pasts shows other employers that they, too, can “ban the box” on their application forms. 


This all leads to engagement. Once people have even a rudimentary understanding of who other people really are and where they came from, you can foster teamwork. You want people from different populations working and interacting together, rather than seeking their comfort level and assembling only in the social groups that they know and understand outside of work. In many workplaces, employees naturally gravitate towards inter-racial, intercultural comradery in order to address the tasks at hand. If not, it’s up to the employer to create environments in which there is such collaboration. One recent moment at the plant reassured the value of engagement to me: 4 of my coworkers were working together on a machine, 4 different native tongues, all speaking perfect or broken English, laughing together and working hard – it showed perfectly why we do what we do.


With all of the other Es under your belt you then have an environment that can encourage empowerment. For many, having a secure job with benefits is empowerment enough. Others hunger for more, and just as you would based on anyone else’s merit and drive, you should provide that opportunity. In my workplace we have a Korean-American plant manager, Black men in plant floor management and support, and minorities working in our skilled trades. They are in those roles for the same reason someone with my skin color would be: They proved their worth, their mettle and their value to the team.


You’ll notice that I don’t believe in a fifth E as a tool, one that other leaders dig: Enumeration. Many organizations will set quotas and goals for hiring and advancement. We don’t. It’s dehumanizing, treating a person as a number and not as an individual. It’s disingenuous and contrived, pushing idealism to meet a statistical goal rather than creating interactive diversity because it’s the right thing to do, the normal thing to do. Let diversity grow naturally by focusing on the other Es and you’ll be surprised at what can be achieved when you’re being genuine and not chasing numbers. 


2020 has served as a wake-up call for many people and companies when it comes to social justice, diversity and inclusion. There’s work to be done and it’s good work -- and it can improve how you work. Consider these 4 Es and how they can be implemented in your workplace to make it -- and our world – a better place.



From the 19 October 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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