Diversity at Work


Is “diversity” just one more buzz word to work into your conversations at work? Those who think so are really on the wrong track. Perhaps they are thinking of “diversity” as a black/white issue or a male/female issue. It is far more than that, and well-informed companies are embracing true diversity as a savvy business strategy.

Think for a moment about who your customers are. I’m betting that they are all not exactly like you—not the same age, gender, educational background, race, or even national heritage. It is a rare business today which is not serving international customers at some level. Next time you are in WalMart, take a look at the specialty food aisles. They may vary slightly from community to community, but they are there. Why is a retail giant like WalMart interested in this customer base? Because it exists.

Now let’s consider your suppliers. You are an unusual organization if all of your providers of goods, supplies, raw materials, and other vendors from which you buy are U.S. based only. Even if headquarters are U.S. based, significant segments of your suppliers’ businesses may well be conducted outside our country. The truth is that we are genuinely a global economy today.

So what does this have to do with diversity? There’s an old story about a car manufacturer who will remain unnamed. Their designers created a wonderful little car sold in the U.S. under a particular name. It was extremely popular and sold quite well in this country. But when the Company attempted to market the same vehicle in Spanish-speaking countries, its sales were flat. Why? Maybe because the English name for this vehicle in Spanish roughly translates to “No go!” A diversity issue raised its ugly head. A popular U.S. based soft-drink had a slogan in this country which began, “Come alive….” When the Company attempted to sell this product in Asian markets, they of course had their winning slogan translated. Unfortunately, the translation was something like, “Your dead ancestors will come back to life….” Again, a failure to expend some elbow grease and consider diversity implications.

Think for a moment of how the outcome would have been different if the car company had an Hispanic representative on the sales team. How about an Asian team member on the team attempting to sell in the far East? Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it; yet inclusion of diverse employees has been less than a mandate in U.S. companies in the past. Perhaps our country is so big that we just don’t recognize the existence of different markets. Perhaps many of us are so isolated within our own borders that we just fail to see the opportunities outside our own experiences. It does not begin and end with national borders, however.

What other differences constitute “diversity?” Pretty much anything that makes one person different from another. Diversity can be reflected in life-style, sexual orientation, economic strata, religion, national origin, gender, age, or any one of a myriad of differentiating characteristics. It would be foolish to think that every company could have an advisory board which is comprised of every conceivable diverse demographic group. But to be successful, you’d better have at least some! What if your business is strictly U.S. based? Well, your customers are still not all of one background. This is true because U.S. residents vary so widely. Consider soliciting the opinions of a younger person. And a woman. And a person of color. And someone for whom English is not their native language. If you are not aware of the diversity of your customers, you simply are not making the best business decisions you could.

Let’s think for a moment about the workforce in which you function every day. Imagine for a moment that those around you regarded you as strange, or abnormal. Imagine that they were agonizingly polite and stiff in their interactions with you. Further, it’s pretty clear that they are uncomfortable around you because you are never invited to any after-work functions, and the break room seems to quiet right down when you arrive. You even notice some glances exchanged. Honestly, could you do your best work in this environment? Of course not. Yet we may be subjecting our diverse office mates to this kind of treatment on a daily basis.

If you, a part of the majority, are uncomfortable with this diverse person, I invite you to get over it! Ask him to join you. Ask him how his society of origin would perceive all of you. Ask him how your product would come across in that environment. I guarantee that you will, at the least, learn something. And you have a real opportunity to engage someone you really do need to be successful! If this person is representative of a customer or supplier group, you are truly missing the boat if you don’t tap into their experience and observations. Talk about a secret weapon!

Think again about yourself in the isolated role described in the last paragraph. It’s not only true that your potential contributions will be ignored; it’s also true that the basic, every-day work you could contribute could be regarded as somewhat suspect. And what happens to you, the worker, if your company flounders? Right. Downsizing, layoffs, even closure could be in your future. So get out there! Enlist every opinion you can. Gather all the diverse views held by your customers and suppliers. In short, honor the differences that do exist. You have nothing to lose—and everything to gain.

Categories Managing People

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