Since we have talked about the advantages of a diverse work force in other posts, today we shall take the next logical step and look at how such a work force can be achieved. In general, groups’ natural tendency is more toward homogeneity, rather than the other way around. So what can be done?

The crucial step is to actively decide to work toward diversity and then take up specific measures to achieve that goal. The higher in the company hierarchy that decision is made, the better. Appointing a so-called officer for equal opportunity and then keeping them locked away in a tiny closet of an office, without the chance of ever getting so much as an appointment with the top management, is not enough. The key word, I repeat, is “active”!

“We don’t discriminate against anyone.”

In some form, this sentence can usually be found prominently in company image brochures, and if you are lucky, the upper management (and with them the other employees who tend to follow the cues from their leaders) are steeped enough in politically correctness that there won’t be any slip-ups and outright discriminatory phrases found in interviews and official statements. Pretty much everyone knows that today you will suffer a painful backslash if you say out loud that you consider women of child-bearing age a business risk, and think older employees dive up cost with more sick days. Whether those taboos actually erased such thoughts from people’s heads is debatable.

The problem is, the most momentous discrimination happens unintentionally. The HR manager really doesn’t want to discriminate, but while reading and assessing CVs, they don’t always follow just objective criteria but also – almost necessarily – their intuition, which opens all doors for the subconscious; and that subconscious still mostly follows its own rules, which are as simple as they are faulty: white male in his thirties = competent.

This is why you need to take a step further, away from mere “not-discriminating and toward active pursuit of diversity. This new approach needs to pervade the whole organization, because the area manager’s enthusiastic welcome won’t do much good if most employees can hardly be convinced to not complain too loudly about the “different” newcomer too loudly. The HR divisions highly motivated attempts will be in vain if the branch manager dismisses that highly qualified candidate in their third interview because they don’t enjoy the same hobbies as the rest of the team. The message that diversity is good and it is wanted needs to be sent always, everywhere, and continuously, not only when there happens to be a difficult-to-fill job opening. That way everyone has the time to get used to the idea and live the message.

Once the company as a whole has soaked up the idea of diversity, it is time to reflect that in how the organization presents itself to the outside world, and to actively seek to change the composition of the work force. If you are only receiving applications from one homogenous group, try to find out why that might be.

Maybe the office is located in an area that can only really be reached by car, or maybe the way to the nearest train station after dark becomes a test of courage for anyone but the most confident in their self-defense abilities? It might not be obvious at first glance, but these things, too, have a tendency to disadvantage certain groups, in this case car owners and kung-Fu masters. It is therefore useful to ask candidates who declined a job at your company for their reasons, especially concerning such “indirect” factors.

How are complaints about sexual harassment or mobbing handled? Are they taken seriously or do they in the end lead to no changes whatsoever? The official policy and actual handling often are miles apart at this point, which is why once again it is important to talk to those directly affected. In a similar vein, how safe and respected do members of minorities, women, and employees above 50 feel at your company?

Are your employees willing to speak English if necessary, or switch to simpler sentences for the newcomer whose German might not be perfect yet? Are documents available in several languages, and is there someone at the company with the necessary language skills and knowledge to keep them up-to-date? That such multilingualism is also highly useful when dealing with customers I don’t need to mention.

The company website is an often neglected area when it comes to diversity management. Are there just the usual pictures of smiling white men in posh suits everywhere, or does it represent a well-balanced and authentic image of the company and its employees? Many forget that the office manager is just as indispensable as the CEO.

Then there is the question of work hours and where people do their jobs. Flexible work hours and the possibility of once in a while doing things from home are two mechanisms that allow people of groups in their diverse and individual circumstances to do a full job without other areas like family suffering from it. That with a little bit of freedom everyone can work when and where they are at their best is a nice side effect. That may be early morning for some, late afternoon for others. Effective workers, in turn, means increased productivity.

Are employees given opportunity to use their full potential? Are all new ideas given due consideration, no matter who voiced them? And is everyone suitable truly considered for promotions and not just a small group of pre-selected individuals. Is the decision made based on potential and suitability only and not mainly subjective “feelings”? This point needs special attention as the same problems of subconscious “accidental” discrimination arise here as during the hiring process.

Depending on where the problems lie for your particular company, they have to be found, even though admitting to them might be a painful process. However, once they are known those problems can then be systematically tackled and solved.

Here’s one last thought of encouragement: The more diversity an organization has achieved already, the easier it becomes to keep and further develop it.

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