Diversity and Leadership's Role

These days we hear a lot about the need for diversity in the workplace, C-Suite, and of course, the Board room. We hear about the advantages of cultural diversity, the need to hire for diversity, and the importance of having a diverse workforce. We hear about glass ceilings, discrimination, and salary discrepancies. And in case that isn't enough, we hear about reverse discrimination, favoritism, and of course sexism.

But what does it all mean and how do we as leaders address these challenges?

First, there are numerous articles, trainings, seminars, and videos to help us understand what diversity means, what a diverse organization should look like, how to hire for a diverse workforce, and in what manner to manage the differences that come with a diverse group of employees.

Second, many organizations have policies that guide and fine-tune its management teams through mandatory lessons on diversity and the implications of not complying with these organizational policies. And as we all know, this will sometimes lead us to hire individuals that are not necessarily qualified for the job just to ensure we are in compliance with our organizations polices and the law, not to mention we need "a body" in that role.

But what do us as individuals really know about diversity?

After all, to many of us when we hear or think about diversity, we think of race, religion, ethnicity, disability, age, gender, orientation, etc. and the legal implications of not complying with the organizations policies in addition to all the Federal and State regulations that currently exist when we hire someone.

So if diversity is best achieved through hiring, why are we all failing to diversify our workforce effectively? Well as I mentioned above, we tend to panic hire as we never have enough time to interview and we all know the on-boarding process can take "forever". Compound that with a limited pool of qualified individuals, our tendency to hire who we "like" (yes, I said it), meet minimum qualifications of the position, and our need to be in compliance with the law; we have just created the perfect scenario to explain why we are so challenged. Further, we aren't really taught the importance and advantages of a diverse workforce, let alone how to go about creating a team of individuals that can meet all these expectations.

And what do I mean by expectations? I'm referring to the type of team that brings different skills, backgrounds, ways of thinking (education), experience, and ideas that create the type of environment that is rich with creativity, can problem-solve effectively, increase productivity, and bring the type of engagement that organizations are starving to achieve.

The Fix

The questions leaders should ask themselves are, 1) why are we thinking of diversity in terms of the obvious? And 2) aren't we thinking of all this in the wrong context? Instead of looking at diversity in traditional (legal) terms, the fix is in looking at diversity through the lens of "not me." This is also a leadership perspective. We need to think in terms of identifying individuals who are different than ourselves. I'm not talking in terms age, race, gender, etc. but rather in terms of different skills, backgrounds, experience, and knowledge.

Taking the time to identify individuals who are different than ourselves and appreciating what those differences can do for your team/organization, is the real methodology in creating real diversity within the workplace. This means finding those that think differently but have complementary skillsets, who come from different backgrounds and have different experiences but bring new perspectives, have different styles and/or personalities but add value to the team, thereby benefiting you and the organization.

If we retrain our brains to focus on the simplicity of this approach, we can then hire individuals who have the potential of significantly contributing to our needs as leaders or managers in greater ways than we can imagine at times.

So here are the details.

  • Start with looking at the qualities needed and gaps of the team or organization (e.g., skills, education, knowledge, etc.) and create a plan to fill those needs/gaps.
  • Once identified, create a template of questions that will screen candidates for those qualities that are needed. Your human resources department can help you with this part of the process.
  • Then as you interview candidates, keep in mind you are looking for someone who is not "you" but someone who has the qualities you need to fill those gaps, complement those who the candidate will be working with, and boost your teams and organization to the next level.

Leadership's Other Role

As leaders, it's our responsibility to understand the connection between leadership and diversity not only in the hiring process but in employee retention and engagement. Hiring is just the beginning as once we have the "perfect" candidate, how do we keep those employed engaged and connected? There is a strong belief that leadership is about hiring the right person for the job, making them feel accepted, and showing respect for what they bring to the organization. When employees feel good about themselves and understand what the organization is working towards, they will perform better (higher productivity) both individually and as part of their team. This effort should mirror the same objectives of your organization's diversity strategy.

Moreover, leaders should always focus on "walking the talk." A leader that inspires confidence in others, shows respect for differences, and supports viewpoints that are diverse, is also empowering these same employees to be their personal best. This leadership model and strategy should cascade throughout the organization, especially to middle management who does most of the hiring. As such, leaders should teach managers how to look for talent that complements their personality and their team's needs.

Lastly, leaders should build accountability into the model to ensure that all those in management positions are focused on creating an environment that is unique, integrated, and well rounded; in other words, diverse. In today's changing global environment, diversity in thought, perspective and opinion is the difference between excelling and failing, and diversity is the answer to adaptation and innovation. The point is to focus on what's important, diversity in understanding, valuing differences, and inspiring others and not just on what's legal.

©  Darrielle Ehrheart | June 23, 2016

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