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by Marlene Piturro, PhD | March 10, 2009

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Top managers often say that their company's people are its most important asset. Those who go beyond the clich? recognize that in a tight job market and a global economy a company that puts people first - regardless of their race, religion, gender, age, sexual preference, or physical disability - wins.

Being successful at creating a workforce diversity program involves attracting and retaining the highest quality individuals in the talent pool. For the HR professional it means looking beyond obvious recruitment methods and venues for good people, then learning how to manage human potential sensitively. It requires an ever-increasing awareness of how people from different backgrounds deal with authority, communication, overall business etiquette, and relate to their communities of affiliation. Promoting workforce diversity is a process that takes place in many stages and on many levels. It requires HR professionals first to recruit a competent and qualified staff, then to accommodate individual needs within the context of the work team and the organization.

Michael Forrester, president of Cleveland-based Job Options, an online jobs board that attracts a rich demographic mix says, "If you're not reaching out to diverse groups, whether it's minorities, the visually impaired or other groups underrepresented in your work force, you're missing out on huge pockets of the talent pool." Pointing out large organization with successful diversity programs, like Federal Express and the U.S. Army, he says that with careful planning and execution any organization can recruit and retain a rainbow coalition of workers.

Recruiting a Diverse Workforce

Forrester notes that JobOptions, which has been successful at attracting a balanced gender, age, and ethnicity mix, advises HR people to market strategically to targeted communities. For example, print advertisements in minority-owned newspapers give a lot of bang to the buck, as do ads in minority trade organization publications and college newsletters. Forrester also hails the variety of opportunities created by the Internet, "As an HR professional, look at the way you're using the Internet. With the 'Net you can tap directly into communities targeted geographically, ethnically, by profession, age and gender. Allocate your advertising dollars wisely, recognizing that some of the best ad opportunities are very inexpensive," advises Forrester.

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Although the Internet may produce some results instantly, recruiting for diversity is a long-term process. The Census Bureau estimates that by 2050, the African-American population in the U.S. is expected to double to more than 61 million people, while by 2030, the non-Hispanic white population will be less than half of the U.S. population under age 18.

Breaking Down Barriers at Work

You've been successful at recruiting a diverse workforce. Hooray! What do you do next?

Make sure that you send a clear message that your firm embraces a smorgasbord of cultures and styles. Small companies with 100 employees or less have an edge here. Even without a rainbow mix, they tend to function as a unit where people trust each other and communicate openly and democratically. In larger companies it may be harder to create an atmosphere conducive to the special needs and sensitivities of all comers.

The HR professional should position workplace diversity as an ongoing program rather than a quick fix, half-day workshop run by an outside consultant. Your employees are a great source of ideas about programming. In a survey of 27 large companies by the Cultural Diversity at Work newsletter, 75% of respondents said their employees contributed to initiating and maintaining diversity initiatives. To ensure that diversity becomes ingrained at your company, consider a range of initiatives including:

* In-house workshops that create teams that talk about diversity in the workplace and propose programs.

* Workshops on behavior, communication and etiquette that help people create a welcoming rather than a confrontational or exclusionary environment.

* Encouraging affinity groups formed on the base of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age and interests. Because such groups are exclusive in their membership, it's important that they be integrated into the diversity effort.

* Support outreach activities suggested by employees. These may be high school or college internships or work/study programs, participation at career fairs at minority colleges or in partnership with local community groups, targeted advertising, and volunteer opportunities that include mentoring of persons with special needs.

Above all, the HR professional is a role model who embraces everyone in celebration of his or her identity. That may be a lofty ideal but the HR professional who goes to Black History Month events, marching in the Gay Pride parade or attending a legal/employment clinic for divorced homemakers looking for their first job is sending an important message to everyone in the company and the community. Leading by example, you create a climate that encourages employees and job seekers to be themselves and to state their views in ways that will be respected. You show your employees that you welcome all efforts to recruit and retain a workforce made up of the rainbow of human possibilities.

The Devil is in the Details

Michael Forrester reminds us, "If you treat people great, your company will get a reputation as one with a welcoming culture, a good place to work." However, it doesn't mean that achieving workplace diversity is easy. For example, JobOptions had a hard time increasing the number of females posting their resumes until they elicited feedback. It turned out that women insisted on private instead of public postings of their resumes. When JobOptions beefed up privacy protection standards, postings by women jumped 25% in two months.

In your workplace be alert to little things that may be keeping people from being fully engaged with each other. Whether that involves mentoring minority newcomers for three months until they're comfortable within the company and their co-workers, reviewing your benefits package so that same sex partners and non-traditional families have the same coverage options as those in traditional situations, writing a dress code in synch with your corporate culture, investing in special keyboards and screens to accommodate people with physical disabilities, or thinking through policies on speaking Spanish at work, the challenges are there.

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