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Diversity: Why It's Your Competitive Advantage

You could do worse than following billionaire Warren Buffett’s advice on investing in stocks. I follow his sage words about investing in people: “The closer that America comes to fully employing the talents of all its citizens, the greater its output of goods and services will be.”

We’ve seen exactly that effect at Harris. Our diversity is such a gift that I’m almost afraid to touch it, as if it’s an egg that would break if knocked around! Yet I feel compelled to spell out its advantages because I see so many companies failing to grasp why diversity—employing the talents of all—is so essential. And I see them failing to reap its rewards.

New mindset

Before we get too deep into the topic, let me step back and offer some clarification. By diversity, I mean practices that welcome people of different genders, ethnicities, backgrounds and working styles. At one time, this meant a legal imperative. Later it became a business imperative due to RFP requirements. Now we can simply celebrate it, because diversity truly gives your firm a competitive edge.

Some people think that diversity has to include quotas. That’s not true. It should include reaching out to ensure that different groups of people have a fair shot at a job. For instance, military veterans are overrepresented in the ranks of the nation’s homeless. How can we change that? By more deliberately inviting them to explore opportunities at our companies.

“If you do not intentionally include, you unintentionally exclude,” says Neil Lenane, Progressive Insurance’s Business Leader of Talent Management. He sees that diversity “empowers us to cast wider nets for the best talent.”

Vast benefits

67% of job-seekers say diversity is an important factorA Forbes survey of 300 senior executives concluded that diversity is critical to success. The report quotes Eileen Taylor, Deutsche Bank’s Global Head of Diversity, who says “diverse teams and companies make better decisions” and that Deutsche Bank survived the financial crisis in large part because of its diverse makeup.  

Research in the Harvard Business Review shows that diversity “unlocks innovation and drives market growth” by creating an environment where innovative ideas flourish and teams better understand their diverse consumers.

Fortunately, diversity is becoming more expected in any workplace—especially as a new generation of workers moves in. Two thirds of respondents in a Glassdoor survey say a diverse workforce is important when choosing where to work, and in my view this number will only get higher.

Honestly, millennials don’t even understand why we’re discussing diversity. To them, working in a diverse group comes so naturally that anything else seems peculiar. Working in a homogenous group would be as dispiriting as toiling in a hierarchical system that stifled their creativity.

I can also testify that diversity would be vital even if it just made a few “outliers” more comfortable. I once joined a board of directors where I was the only woman. And I felt a bit out of place. Later, after everyone else saw the wheels didn’t fall off and our decision-making actually improved, other women were invited to join the board and all of us felt more relaxed.

New questions

Inherent in a more diverse workforce is the need to accommodate people with different living/working styles. Caregivers, people with disabilities, single parents and heads of blended families may require policy changes to fit their needs—changes that are worth making because they’ll improve motivation and reduce turnover.

Instead of questions such as, “What if someone complains?” and “We’ve done it one way for so long—why change it?” let’s ask, “How will this benefit our coworkers?” and “Will it improve their work-life balance?”

Newsflash: No matter what policy change you make, someone will likely complain. That shouldn’t stop you from making an evidence-based decision in the interest of recruitment, retention and productivity.

Don’t make people choose between work and family. Do the opposite as part of your push for diversity: increase the options for flex-time and telecommuting. As a bonus, other staffers will love you for reducing their commuting stress!

In my next post, I’ll give you the blueprint for improving diversity efforts in your organization. Really. I’ll turn your struggle for diversity upside down. In the meantime, what benefits have you seen by emphasizing diversity? Have you encountered any challenges? Let’s get the conversation going.


Laurie Dreyer

Laurie found her career calling as a human resources specialist and teacher. Her proudest moments are those times she’s able to help, teach or support someone. She does all of these at Harris and has also taught at AIA, AEBL and the Senior Executives Institute of ACEC. Laurie brings to Harris over 32 years of experience in HR leadership positions for such companies as The Ratcliff Architects, Gensler, Psomas and Anshen+Allen/Stantec.

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