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Diversity in the workplace — Illinois

The importance of a diverse workforce is becoming more important in the business world. Diversity has taken on a new meaning as we move to a global economy. While American business has moved to increase diversity, there is much ground to cover in this area. There are many benefits for businesses with well-developed diversity management programs.

The difference between diversity and affirmative action

Affirmative action generally refers to federal mandates to seek out minorities for employment and promotion. Diversity goes beyond the mandate, involving a recognition and appreciation for the differences in people and cultures.

Adjusting to diversity in the workplace means more than just accepting another person as they are and giving them the equal opportunity of employment. Diversity includes creating a cohesive culture within the workplace, by understanding the differences and similarities of each employee and making full use of the strengths of all employees.

Reasons to diversify

Diversity should be encouraged and managed because it helps a business to improve and maintain its competitive advantage. The current fast-paced business world with its new technology has taken employers beyond traditional boundaries, sometimes forcing businesses to adjust to differences in culture quickly. For example, an international buyer who saw your webpage may want to propose a contract for your company’s product or services. Before you know it or know how to deal with it, you are faced with cultural differences for which you may not be prepared.

Among the reasons for encouraging diversity are the following:

  • Recruiting and retaining employees - In a tight labor market, it is critical that employers be able to attract and retain quality employees. Employees have come to expect nondiscriminatory and harassment-free workplaces. In an accepting and diverse environment, where employees feel valued, turnover is less likely and productivity can be expected to increase. In addition, a diverse workplace issues an invitation to talented individuals from all cultures. Employees are often attracted to companies who are committed to recruiting and promoting a wide variety of people.
  • Understanding an expanding customer base - Minorities are in actuality the majority in six out of eight of America’s largest metropolitan areas. The combined buying power of so-called minority consumers has continued to increase. For instance, women are the primary purchasers in more than half of U.S. households. Employees should reflect the diversity of the global marketplace, if only to better serve the customer. A better understanding of your customer’s culture and an ability to relate to it, can provide your company with a major competitive edge in international markets.
  • Increasing creativity - Employees from varied backgrounds can bring fresh perspectives to the workplace. When past practices are questioned and challenged by employees, new ideas are generated and improved products and services may result.
  • Getting used to change - A diverse workplace is one that has learned to accept differences between people and changes in the way business is done. Such flexibility is crucial to survival of any business. The only constant in the business world is change. Diversity puts your business in position to grow and handle change.

Implementing a plan for diversity

A business that has serious intentions to diversify must do more than hold a seminar or two for employees. Employer policies, recruitment, compensation orientation, training and work arrangements should all be evaluated and modified as necessary to support diversity.

Involve executives

Critical to the success of any diversity plan is the support of top management. Employees probably expect the human resources department to be dedicated to diversity, but if the company CEO shows a strong interest, the impact on employees and lower-level supervisors will be visible. Executive involvement is also critical for the necessary financial support to implement a diversity initiative.

Communicate the goal of diversity carefully

Trends in human resources favor a broad approach to diversity, rather than the traditional integration of individuals with various visible characteristics. Diversity can and should include a respect for not only the visible differences between people, but also the various personalities and work styles that each employee brings to the company.

A diversity program should be broad enough to include all employees and each employee should be made to feel like the program will benefit them. If employees can relate to the need for diversity, they will be much more likely to support and encourage a program. Above all, employees should not expect the diversity program to correct past inequalities or be tailored to fit their individual agendas.

Assess your company

Review your company climate, procedures, customer base and workforce to determine the focus your diversity initiative should take. For instance, consider the following areas:

  • Define your customer base and in which directions you would like to expand your base; it is helpful to consider how many different languages are spoken by your customers and in how many countries your business operates.
  • Review annual recruitment costs and turnover at your company – determine if there is high turnover among certain employee groups.
  • Determine the amount of time and money spent by your company on an annual basis on discrimination or harassment litigation, including attorney’s fees and settlement costs.
  • Review employer policies and benefits to determine if they are attractive to a wide variety of employees and recruits.
  • Define the means by which your company develops individual employees for career advancement.
  • Review incentive programs or other ways your company rewards employees for their talents and success.
  • Review procurement policies and the amount of diversity within your supply chain.

Establish a diversity training program

Any diversity initiative must include a continuous training component. No program is worthwhile if it is not communicated to your employees and used on a daily basis.

The most expedient means of accomplishing the necessary employee education is through a training process. Training may take any of a number of forms, however. Employers have the option to provide written materials, seminars or individual sessions. Some companies may find it expedient to use the services of a consultant or to involve legal counsel. Others may choose to present the training by current human resources staff or other supervisory employees.

Don’t expect training to change the way your business operates or to change employee attitudes overnight. People must make the effort to accept and welcome diversity and change often comes slowly. Training, however, creates awareness of the diversity initiative and may teach skills that will facilitate change. Training can change behavior, which is often the first step to changing attitudes.

Diversity training should not be limited to single sessions on the single topic of “Diversity.” Your diversity training should also be incorporated into other educational venues provided to your employees. For example, once the diversity program has been formulated, relevant aspects of the program should be included in orientation sessions for new employees.

Supervisory training should always include refresher sessions on the diversity initiative. Keeping track of accomplishments in diversity and sharing them in ongoing educational sessions can be encouraging to both supervisors and employees.

Review and rework the plan

After the initial educational efforts and policy reviews have been completed, the next step should be re-evaluation. Diversity is a continuing process. Progress should be noted, wherever possible. Failures should be reviewed, and an effort made to come up with alternate plans. Managers must continue to be motivated to encourage diversity in promotion and job assignment.

It is often helpful to develop a committee or taskforce that is dedicated to continuing the diversity initiative. Regular meetings should be held at which progress is analyzed, problems are addressed and further goals are set. The taskforce should include a variety of employees.

Steps to diversity

For the small to medium-sized business, it is often difficult to achieve a diverse workplace with a single initiative. Limited staffing needs and budgets can hinder the implementation of an all-inclusive plan for diversity. The alternative is to start with small steps, selecting two or three aspects of the business that need improvement. Efforts can then be focused efforts on increasing diversity in those areas. As improvements are noted, other areas can be targeted. A commitment to the process is the most important aspect of a diversity program, not its initial size or scope. 

Where to go for more information

Visit the website for Dialogue on Diversity, a nonprofit educational organization at: