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HR Magazine - September 2000: Is Your HR Department Diverse Enough?

By Lin Grensing-Pophal  9/1/2000
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HR Magazine,   July 2000 Vol. 45, No. 9

When HR doesn't reflect a broad range of viewpoints, diversity and employee relations may suffer.

What does the typical HR department look like? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is primarily female (65 percent so at the manager level, slightly more than 87 percent at the clerk level), white (even at the clerk level, where the highest levels of minorities are found, only 14 percent of HR professionals are black and about 16 percent are Hispanic) and between the ages of 35 and 54.

This apparent lack of diversity doesn’t seem to surprise James Jones, director of training programs for the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) in New York. “I think that, historically, HR has been a function through which a lot of women and minorities have sort of gained a stronghold,” he says. But, he believes diversity is reflected mostly in the lower to middle ranks of HR organizations. “At the senior level, by and large, we still see a disproportionate representation of white males who manage the process.”

Look around you. What does your HR department look like?

Is it diverse? Should it be?

This is an important question, but not just because having a diverse employee population is “the right thing to do.” In today’s growing global economy, it is often the smart thing to do in terms of the business and the bottom line.

“A wide range of diversity really has a lot of advantages just in terms of the sheer amount of ideas and perspectives,” says Cornelius Grove, a partner in Cornelius Grove & Associates of Brooklyn, N.Y., and author of the SHRM white paper Diversity in Business. “What is known about the value of diversity is pretty clear—there really is a business case. You can get to diversity without ever having to do anything ‘PC’ or ‘feel good’; you can get there strictly on the business principles.”

Grove’s observations get no argument from Alan Weiss, president of Summit Consulting Group Inc. in East Greenwich, R.I. “If you look at the literature,” says Weiss, “heterogeneous teams are more innovative and productive than homogeneous teams. Any HR department should have as much diversity as possible.”

Credibility with the Workforce

For many in the field, HR diversity is an issue of credibility. If an organization says it is committed to diversity and is attempting to build a diverse workforce, shouldn’t the HR staff exemplify diversity in its own ranks?

Yes, says Michele Fantt Harris, SPHR, vice president of regional human resources at Marsh Inc., in Washington, D.C. “If HR is leading the diversity initiative, it really needs to walk the talk and to show diversity within its own department as well,” she says.

Michael Watson, national director of human resources for Girl Scouts of the USA in New York, emphasizes that, when it comes to diversity, the HR department is viewed as a leader in the organization. “If they don’t do it, other departments will say it’s not possible.”

Wally Bonaparte, who manages the recruitment and selection division for the city of Detroit, takes a similar view. “The role that HR plays within an organization has to be a leadership role, indicating to the rest of the organization that what we are asking them to do, we are also doing,” he says.

If HR doesn’t make a point of starting the diversity ball rolling, an entire organization may suffer from diversity inertia, says Tim Bland, SPHR, an attorney with Ford & Harrison LLP in Memphis, Tenn., and a member of the SHRM Diversity Committee. Bland says, “People have a tendency to hire people who are like themselves. So, unless someone is really focused on diversity and committed to it, then they tend to not hire a diversified workforce.”

Creating a diversity of perspectives is also important, Watson says. “Let’s say you have an organization that has a lot of women with children, and HR is filled with people who don’t have children. They might not understand the issues that these women face. Or, if you have an HR department with a staff that is all over 50, they might not know the needs of the Generation X workforce.”

Adds Lynne Revo-Cohen, co-owner of Hubbard & Revo-Cohen Inc., an HR consulting and technology firm in Vienna, Va.: “It’s very important from a credibility point of view that the people who work in the HR department are reflective of the workforce at large and that they understand the diversity of their internal customers.”

In Bland’s opinion, a “lack of diversity in the HR department can impair its ability to deal with a diverse workforce.”

Iris Goldfein, principal-in-charge of Pricewaterhouse-
Cooper’s Global Human Resource Solutions in the Americas, says HR should set its sights even higher than merely mirroring its current workforce. “The HR department should be as diverse as the population it wants to represent,” she says.

Compensating for Lack of Diversity

What if your HR department lacks diversity, but you simply can’t add any new employees to the mix? Or what if you have the ability to hire, but there’s no way you can possibly build your staff to a size where it is representative of all the segments of your employee population?

The first step is to avoid getting caught in a numbers game.

It’s not the way the organization looks that really matters, it’s the way the organization thinks—its values and its culture, say Revo-Cohen and Ernest Hicks, manager of external diversity partnerships with Xerox’s Corporate Global Work Environment and Diversity Office, part of corporate HR, in Rochester, N.Y.

Regardless of the type of diversity in question, Goldfein says, the questions you need to ask about employees include: “Do they have a mentor? Do they have a role model? Do they have someone who truly understands the issues they face?”

Georgette Bennett, president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York, says, “It’s not that I think you have to have diversity in your department in the exact proportion that these groups are represented in the organization. That’s ridiculous. But, you do need to have somebody there who has a different set of antenna and who has some experience with other cultures.”

Some employees and managers are not able to perceive cultural and other differences between themselves and others, says Bennett. But such myopia can be harmful to an organization and its employees. Bennett cites a recent study by the Tanenbaum Center that found that many instances of religious bias are never reported. The reason: In some cultures, there is a great reluctance to file formal complaints.

As a result, some organizations are alienating their employees without knowing it. “Much of the bias that takes place is not by design,” it’s inadvertent, says Bennett.

Greater awareness can avoid such problems. And the broader your HR department, the greater will be its sensitivity to those with different cultures, religions, races and ethnic backgrounds.

Despite limitations of time, budget and available staff, there are still things you can do to better meet the needs of diverse employees.

“Lots of organizations put together what we call diversity councils,” says Revo-Cohen. “The council is very representative of all the diversity within the organization. So, while HR may not have sufficient staff to be diverse, it certainly can create an environment where it can hear the voices of a diverse workforce through the establishment of a formal committee.”

At Xerox, for instance, Hicks provides support for six nationally recognized groups that formed internally and represent the interests of women, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, gays and lesbians.

Simply raising the level of awareness of the diverse populations that HR serves can be an important first step. The next step is to focus on the specific needs of these populations. “I’ve benchmarked some Fortune 500 companies similar to Xerox,” Hicks says, “and they have individuals in HR specifically focusing in on diverse markets. ‘What are their needs and how do we best reach the Hispanic market, the gay market, etc.?’”

Building Diversity

If you determine that your HR department could benefit from more diversity, and you have the requisite resources, try taking the following steps:

Make sure you have support from the top. “The directive should come from the top down,” says Fantt Harris. “Initially, it would be ideal if the president of the company is fostering diversity and showing it through the members of the cabinet and staff. That begins to change the way the diversity is looked upon in the organization.”

Bland agrees. “Diversity starts with a commitment from the very top of the organization; upper-level management should emphasize diversity across all the boundaries of the organization.”

Take careful aim at business goals. “Successful diversity programs are clearly tied to the business imperatives of the company,” says Revo-Cohen. If HR professionals are serious about diversity, they should “put in place a very comprehensive diversity program that is tied to their business objectives and that holds people accountable, just as they would for any other business imperative.”

“You have to assess the business drivers of the organization,” Watson emphasizes. “What is it you’re trying to accomplish?” Then, he says, take a look at the HR organization and determine if you’re set up to meet the business objectives.

“You have to think about what kinds of diversity can really help your organization move forward,” Watson says. “Even things such as background.” For example, he points out, “At a not-for-profit organization like the Girl Scouts, it can be important to have individuals who come from a for-profit perspective.”

HR departments need “to understand the diversity goals in the organization,” Goldfein says. “They need to figure out what they need in HR—and in the business—to meet the goals that have been set.”

Remember, though, that diversity should not involve meeting quotas or counting heads. “Just monitoring in terms of head count, to me, is a small piece,” says Jones. “If you’re not modeling in terms of understanding, and what the HR function can be strategically, then it’s certainly a waste of time and resources.”

Your objectives need to be tied to less tangible—yet more meaningful—measurements. Bonaparte admits that the value of diversity is difficult to measure, but says, “I think that if you’re going to key in on diversity and use diversity in a positive mode, then you really ought to start a system of being able to measure it somehow. Making that connection is hard for HR,” he says. “It’s also hard for the organization. But, to me, that’s really what you need to do.”

Build from within. Take the time to identify existing staff—in your HR department as well as in other areas of the organization—who may have the aptitude and the interest that you’re seeking.

“Some serious thought has to be given to the development process,” Jones says. “I cannot be a clerk one day and, the next day, wake up with the kind of tools I need to manage strategically.”

Hicks came up through the ranks to the HR organization, and his diverse background, he says, is a plus for the department. At Xerox, Hicks has served as a sales rep, sales manager, trainer, internal consultant and worldwide marketing manager. His educational background is in finance and pharmacology.

“We have a mixture of individuals that have been lifetime HR professionals and individuals who have not,” says Hicks. “What each brings is a balance and a new perspective that really has created an environment that supports our customers.”

Cast a broad net. With a tight labor market making it difficult to find top-notch candidates, there is all the more reason to cast a broad net when looking for job applicants. Not only does a wide search ensure that candidates from diverse backgrounds will be included in the mix, it increases the odds that your applicant pool will be broad and varied, allowing you to make the best choices possible.

It’s not a numbers game, Watson asserts. “We’ve identified specifically the caliber and quality of people we need to bring into the organization. Once you establish those quality standards, then you go out and do a broad search. It’s not as if we’re going out to say, ‘We have to find an Asian HR representative.’ But we want to make sure that we consider applications from a broad variety of sources. It’s all about the quality of the individual and what they bring—it’s not the quota system.”

Bland mirrors these thoughts. “Everyone would say that the paramount goal in hiring an HR person, or anyone else, is to put the best qualified people in the position. So, I don’t think that anyone is arguing that you should hire an unqualified person to fill a position just for the sake of diversity.”

“If you really are serious and committed to quality,” Watson says, “what you will find is you will end up with a diverse organization because no one group has the market on high-caliber people.”

Goldfein believes that the talent exists and, “If an HR department doesn’t know where to look, how to look and doesn’t have a balanced interviewing process, then they have a problem.”

Establish a formal mentoring program. An employer makes a decision on an employee within the first 90 days, says Watson, and employees are also doing their own evaluation of the company from day one. “Everything they see and hear will tell them whether they made a good decision. If you don’t create the kind of environment where someone from a different background can really be comfortable and able to contribute, then they’re going to leave—you’re going to have a retention problem.”

Fantt Harris is implementing a formal mentoring program at Marsh and believes this step is critical to successfully maintaining a diverse workforce. It’s not the written rules that trip people up, she says. It’s all of the small, unwritten things that those “in the know” are aware of but that those who are “different” may not be privy to.

A mentoring program can ensure that all new employees have the information and resources they need to learn and to understand the culture of the organization. And the absence of such a program can lay waste to your efforts to promote diversity, says Fantt Harris. "My feeling is, if you're not willing to have mentoring and coaching for new persons coming into the organization, then don't hire women and minorities or diverse candidates. Just don't even hire them because you're doing them, and your company, a disservice."

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of The HR Book: Human Resources Management for Business (Self-Counsel Business Series, 1999).

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