Creating productive workforce diversity

By Mike Adams & Rob Russell, Missouri SBDC

Several years ago we had the opportunity to work with a small business that was interested in making a “diversity hire.” The business interviewed a number of candidates who were qualified to help it increase its workforce diversity. Ultimately, the business ended up making an offer to one of these candidates, who eventually accepted. 

As we followed up on this process with the business, it unfortunately became clear that its desire to increase the diversity of its workforce was merely a means of checking a box — a way to appease several major clients who had requested more diversity. 

Afterward, as we reflected on the experience, we wondered: Is “checking the box” really creating productive diversity in the workplace? 

While it’s relatively easy to check boxes on an EEO form, it’s much harder to create an inclusive workplace that welcomes diverse ideas and perspectives. And yet research continually shows that the most innovative organizations and places of business are those that successfully navigate this terrain. 

When thinking about diversity in the workplace, it’s important to think as comprehensively as possible. Creating a company culture that embraces free-flowing ideas from a wide range of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives leads to greater success, growth and innovation. Conversely, limiting the conversation to those with similar sensibilities and thought processes often stymies these efforts, with growth and innovation generally becoming much more challenging.

Workplace diversity and inclusion have to move beyond simple efforts to check a box to a strategy that embraces the differences that everyone brings to the workplace. As we think through what constitutes a diverse team and organization, we also need to move beyond a simple conception of diversity based on visible markers such as race and gender into broader definitions of diversity — including diversity of thought, expression and contribution. 

As a leader, this doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning your core values system but rather focusing on the contributions individuals can make within that system. While growth and innovation do not depend solely on this type of productive diversity, it can be a powerful contributing factor.

Yum Brands (KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut) CEO David Novak calls this perspective “unity of values, diversity of styles” and argues in his leadership work that creating a space for people to safely share ideas and even disagree is key to leading a successful, innovative organization. Leaders, he argues, must celebrate individuality by believing in all people, pursuing the development of their workforce as individuals, and openly seeking knowledge and perspectives from different team members. 

Sure, this can be uncomfortable. But as Novak acknowledges, as long as everyone on your team is working toward “the same goals with a similar value system,” then that discomfort can be OK — and even empowering! 

Looking back at our original small business, hopefully it has recognized that this hire presented it with an opportunity that goes beyond keeping the client happy. Ideally, it has worked to become an even more diverse workplace and has taken the opportunity to maximize the ways that every team member can contribute to the company’s growth and success. If it hasn’t, it has surely missed a chance to build upon the varied perspectives and experiences that every member of its team has to contribute to the business. 

As you think about your organization, do you think about diversity as simply a process of checking boxes? If so, are you productively diverse?

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