The Great Recession has had its impact on many parts of our lives. Companies large and small, governments, communities and everyday folks all have cut back to make ends meet or to make sure they are not stretched too thin should harder times come their way. It would not be surprising then to learn that one of the areas that companies have cut back on is in diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs.
To proceed, some definitions are in order. It might seem obvious that diversity is about who gets a seat at the table, but it is defined much more broadly than what is laid out in federal or state law. Diversity certainly refers to race, gender, age and ethnicity. But also it speaks to culture, religion, disability, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, accents, size, mental health and even differences of thought. (And this is not a complete list!) On the other hand, inclusion is about how all these different people are engaged once they are around the table. Do they have equal access to learning and development, mentoring opportunities or corporate advancement? Are they able to fully be who they are in the workplace, accepted and appreciated, no matter their gender or the gender of their spouse or the culture from which they come? Are their ideas heard, accepted and acted upon or swiftly rejected because they themselves are not accorded equal status in the group? In other words, are they really at the table or merely relegated to the peripheries?
Indeed, companies are cutting back on their D&I programs or at least those programs that never were valued fully, implemented or understood for the critical role they play in a company’s bottom line. It is, of course, acceptable and appropriate for a company to require all that they do to align with goals and objectives for profit and return on investment. D&I should be evaluated no differently than any other company function – as budgets get leaner, dross goes away, leaving only the most effective elements behind. That is why weaker D&I programs – those that are nothing more than disjointed activities rather than strategies with well-defined goals – go away in tough economic times.
But for companies that understand D&I as a core value, where it is part of their corporate DNA, D&I programs continue to get stronger even during times of economic crisis. For these companies, D&I is a strategy that helps put them out in front of their competitors – it allows and encourages innovation, broadens and deepens employee engagement, helps them understand global markets where opportunities lie and allows them to plan for the future demographic changes coming at us all.
When D&I is integrated fully into company processes, everyone is responsible for the inclusive environment of the workplace, from the board of directors, through middle managers, down to the people on the assembly line or in the mailroom; further, organizational policies, procedures and processes are all examined to remove barriers to inclusivity.
When these things occur employees feel empowered to speak up when they have a creative idea that may otherwise seem unappreciated – they know that their employer values them and the work they do. They can fully express themselves as individuals, not having to hide parts of their lives that in other work environments might be found unacceptable. Consequently, as much as their employer values them, they value their employment in return and give more of themselves for the overall good – it is true that engaged employees provide better customer care and, therefore, satisfied customers; further, when companies have a diverse workforce whose members are encouraged to express the culture from which they came, those employees can act as ambassadors for the product development, sourcing, manufacturing, marketing or sales teams, helping them understand the cultural backgrounds, rules, traditions and mindsets of potential business partners and customers in those countries.
Finally, companies who embrace D&I are looking forward, fully facing the future unafraid. Boomers are starting to retire, causing one of the greatest generational shifts and job hand-offs ever seen. Within only a few decades the United States will be a nation of minorities – no one group will hold complete power or control. But as these minority groups grow larger, the educational gap between their members and the former white majority grows along with them, causing a mismatch in the skill-needs of the workplace and the available workers to fill those technical positions. Globalization and the growth of wealth in the Third World continue apace. Africa – with a smaller population than India – already has a larger middle class than the sub-continent powerhouse.
How will companies cope if they do not understand that D&I as a core value is the key for understanding, accessing and meeting the challenges these changes will place in front of them? The chief diversity officer of one of the world’s most recognized consumer brands put it quite simply: The result will be the company haves and the company have-nots. The haves will continue to grow and prosper. The have-nots will be left behind in their wake, never able to take advantage of all the opportunities before them. They will never see them coming.
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