"Just because we have elected a black President, people think diversity is not an issue anymore."
So said one of the panelists just before I sat down to moderate a session on Day 2 of Net Impact 2010 where we discussed a weighty issue: The largest and most influential group of stakeholders in any company--its employees--and why successful companies invest significant time and money in building a diverse and inclusive workplace.
My panelists represented companies that have championed diversity hiring and retention for a long time: FedEx Office's Chief Diversity Officer David Buggs, KPMG's Associate Director for National Diversity and Corporate Responsibility Tori Carroll, and Teach for America's Chief Diversity Officer Angela Cobb.
The Business Case for Diversity
I had several questions for the panel but top on my mind was what market forces were driving the case for diversity and inclusion at these global behemoths. According to KPMG's Carroll, it's all about "intellectual capital." "Since we are a professional services firm, our human capital is the product," she expanded, adding that they were increasingly being asked to set up diverse teams, which had lately required going beyond the standard definition of diversity.
Teach for America's Cobb emphasized the need for role models to look like the students they were teaching. "We are a pipeline for talent. We need diverse applicants so that we can feed them further down the leadership track," she said.
Their responses led to an obvious question: how did they define diversity? For FedEx's Buggs, diversity goes beyond race and gender to engagement and outreach. Cobb said that Teach for America put particular focus on Latinos, Hispanics and African-Americans. "We really have to resemble our communities," she added. Carroll called for companies to move beyond gender and ethnicity and begin including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) members of the workforce as well as those with disabilities.
As regular readers know, Vault conducts an annual diversity survey to gauge the progress, or lack thereof, at top companies toward diversity recruitment, retention and promotion. My panelists agreed that internal scorecards and such surveys helped ensure progress was on track. "Rankings matter. Without these benchmarks, we will never know what will stick internally," said Carroll.
Mentoring also got huge points as a testament to the success of a collaborative, functional organization. Further, Carroll said, those who are being mentored are less likely to leave.
The Importance of Employee Resource Groups (ERG)
ERGs were a focal topic at the recently held Asian MBA Leadership Conference. How much value did these chiefs put on the success of these employee-led groups?
According to Carroll, ERGs have come a long away at KPMG--especially the firm's women's network, which grew out of a need to attract female employees and today expands to offering counseling and mentoring services, as well as active engagement and strategic direction across the company. "They are major players today in building our talent pipeline as well as extensively collaborating with our clients and leveraging relationship building," Carroll added.
FedEx takes ERGs several steps further, according to Buggs. "We have a religion-based ERG as well as a cancer awareness group. They were formed on the premise that we are all alike in some ways yet different," he said. FedEx also encourages Inclusion Councils that concentrate on offering mentoring opportunities and a continuous learning loop for members.
When a member of the audience brought up the difficulty in leading change in the absence of a commitment from senior management, the panelists had an unequivocal answer: Be the change yourself. Don't hesitate to approach leadership. While Carroll called it practicing "authentic leadership," Buggs advised forthrightness: "In the end, you are your own personal brand manager, whether it's about promoting your career or highlighting issues you feel strongly about."
In the end, said Carroll, "Diversity is about global competency. You should be able to work with anyone, anywhere, from any background." And that’s when you become a competitive player in the marketplace.
Next: CSR Solutions: How are sustainability officers leading CSR at companies like Advanced Micro Devices, Avon, Coca Cola and SC Johnson?
Previous posts from Net Impact 2010:
5 Questions That Will Change the MBA
The Sustainability Jobs Debate: Reporting from the Net Impact Conference
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