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Diversity in the workplace — Massachusetts

We are now approaching the third decade of the 21st Century and it is becoming more and more apparent that recognition of the importance of diversity in the business world is accelerating. Diversity has taken on a new meaning as we move to a global economy at breakneck speed. Businesses should accept and foster diversity in the workplace to recognize its inherent benefits.

Definitions of diversity and affirmative action

Affirmative action generally refers to legal mandates to make affirmative efforts to employ and promote women and minorities. Diversity is a voluntary action stemming from 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.

Benefits of diversity

Diversity should be encouraged and managed, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because diversity helps a business to improve and maintain its competitive advantage. The fast-paced business world and the rapid evolution of new technologies have 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.

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 all employees feel valued and appreciated despite their differences, turnover is less likely, and productivity can be expected to increase.

In addition, a diverse workplace tends to attract talented individuals from all cultures. Employees are often attracted to companies who are committed to recruiting and promoting a wide variety of people.

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 a better position to grow and handle change.

Implementing a plan for diversity

A business that has a commitment 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 to the extent 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 tangible. 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 which 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. Importantly, however, employees should not be given the expectation that the diversity program is intended 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 practical method 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 prudent 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.

Do not 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 which 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.

Employers can also communicate their diversity and/or EEO policy to job applicants by including the phrase “Equal Opportunity Employer” in all recruitment advertisements and job applications. Appropriate notices also should be posted in areas where applicants are screened, interviewed and tested.

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 may be helpful to develop a committee or taskforce which 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 diversity plan. The alternative is to start with small steps, selecting two or three aspects of the business which need improvement. Efforts can then be focused 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: