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SHRM board member David Windley discusses how unconscious bias can derail workplace diversity efforts.
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Shortly after leaving IBM, I met with the CEO of a major company. He said his company’s workforce diversity strategy was “to identify the key external constituencies and ensure they view our company as a superior member of the business and social community.”
My facial expression must have indicated how underwhelmed I was by his words. That’s when I outlined what I believe are the four goals of a diversity strategy, whether it’s global or U.S.-based:
After explaining these goals to this CEO, the entire tone of our discussion changed because we were able to have a strategic discussion focused on business.
Why Goals Matter
These goals are important because globally, and within individual countries, we have many people differences: racial, ethnic, cultural, gender, geographic, religious and philosophical. Employers naturally want the best people, but in most countries the best people will represent all of those differences. For example:
Globally, and particularly in the United States, there are two core issues: talent and customers. That the United States is no longer “the world’s manufacturer” is evident. The United States is competing with nations that can produce more workers and more buyers of products than we can.
What the United States can bring to the table is talent. But for global companies, the debate is not about the quality of the U.S. workforce; it is about the workforce in each country where they do business. A global company requires a network of thriving local economies to be successful.
The key to that success is talent. Ensuring that all of the people in each nation have the ability to aspire and receive a quality education and the resulting opportunities for employment access and advancement is essential. Doing so will enhance the taxpayer base and customer community.
Unfortunately, the U.S. discussion of equal opportunity—which has evolved into a conversation about workforce diversity—has been largely limited to race and gender. This is somewhat natural because, historically, those issues have been the cornerstone of the United States’ civil rights debate.
But the focus on race and gender has resulted in two outcomes: management that did not address race and gender satisfactorily and wanted to hold on and “get it right;” and management that was unable to accept the emergence of other, new, “people-oriented” diversity issues, such as the acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, as well as those who are differently abled.
Some experts concede that we have not solved any of these issues and are not close to doing so. Generation after generation of employees and managers come to the workplace with questions about, and biases toward, people who are different from them. This means we are not passing on the lessons we have learned by interacting with people who are different from us—lessons learned in classrooms, sports, battlefields and workplaces—and we are passing on the biases of past generations.
The business result is that organizations spend too much time and money in work-related classrooms addressing core equal opportunity issues—that is, race and gender—that were also addressed in the 1960s.
This rich menu of unsolved “people” issues has been joined by other “people-important” issues. Among them are education, age, faith, language, life/work integration and its unique blend of issues (such as culture, flexibility and dependent care) and, perhaps most importantly, poverty, as seen through the lens of health, housing, hunger and the environment.
Communities with bad air and water, poor living circumstances and inadequate schools cannot contribute to producing their fair share of the talent pool nations require to compete in the global marketplace.
And then we have the emergence of the global company’s acknowledgement of its “business-important” diversity issues of thought, culture, geography and immigration. While some will argue that these issues are the business community’s effort to sabotage the focus on the “people issues,” particularly to diminish the focus on ethnicity and gender, these business issues are a critical component of a global workforce diversity strategy and, if omitted, will doom that strategy.
Ted Childs is the former vice president of Global Workforce Diversity at IBM and the founder of Ted Childs, LLC.
Excerpted with permission from The Linkage Leader August 2008 Edition
© (2008) Linkage. All Rights Reserved.
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