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FMI Quarterly/December 2013/December 1, 2013

Diversity Pays Dividends: Creating an Inclusive Culture

Tech11_imageThe United States will look much different in 2050 than it does today. Consider this: The population of the U.S. is anticipated to rise to 438 million by 2050, up from 296 million in 2005. Nearly one in five Americans (19%) will be an immigrant in 2050, and the Latino population will triple in size and account for 29% of the U.S. population in 2050 (compared to 14% in 2005.) The senior population (those 65 years old or older) will more than double in size from 2005 to 2050, and the working-age population (those 18 to 65 years old) will grow more slowly than that of the baby boomers, who will start to retire in droves.

So what do these statistics mean to the construction industry? For one thing, A/E/C firms are going to have to become more creative about embracing diversity, not only across generational and ethnic lines, but also among gender lines. Women and minorities must actively be recruited into the industry now in order to fill the gap left behind by the retiring white male workforce and to compete with other industries and professions for talented individuals.

DIVERSITY DEFINED

The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) defines diversity as “a mosaic of people who bring a variety of backgrounds, styles, perspectives, values and beliefs as assets to the groups and organizations with which they interact.” Simply put, diversity is about differences and mutual respect for those differences. It is about a creating a culture where each individual can thrive and be productive.

Diversity is about values. It has to do with human rights, civil rights and an individual’s deeply held beliefs. It is a balance between people’s rights to their personal beliefs and an organization’s rights to create a productive, diverse workplace. Diversity is about behaviors. Valuing diversity is much more productive than not valuing it and can have a direct impact on a company’s bottom line. Diversity is a long-term process. It cannot be addressed by a single workshop or a few days of training. It must be an integral part of all other business efforts and be actively promoted by all top-level executives in the company.

WHAT MAKES YOU DIFFERENT?

Much of the research that addresses diversity incorporates the idea that there are primary and secondary dimensions of diversity as well as organizational dimensions. Marilyn Loden introduced primary and secondary dimensions of diversity in her seminal 1996 book “Implementing Diversity.”

Primary dimensions of diversity include:

  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Race
  • Physical qualities
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender

Primary dimensions are physically visible; they are things people can tell just by looking at us, with the exception of sexual orientation. We cannot change these aspects because we are born with them. These six differences are termed “core” dimensions of diversity because they exert an important impression on our early socialization and have a powerful, sustained impact on our experiences and values throughout every stage of life. When people feel stereotyped based on a primary dimension, they can be very sensitive about it — usually much more so than if it were a secondary dimension.

Secondary dimensions of diversity include, but are not limited to:

  • Work experience
  • Geographical location
  • Marital status
  • Military experience
  • Religious beliefs
  • Education
  • Parental status
  • Income
  • Appearance
  • Personal habits
  • Recreational habits

Secondary dimensions are elements that we have some power to control and can change throughout our lives. Because we acquire, discard and/or modify many of these secondary dimensions, their influence in our lives is less constant and more individualized than is true for the core dimensions. Nonetheless, these secondary dimensions add richness and complexity to our diverse identities and give meaning to our everyday lives. People are usually less sensitive about being stereotyped based upon secondary dimensions because these are things that they have some power to change. People also have the choice of whether or not to disclose any of this information; it can often be concealed.

Organizational dimensions include the aspects of cultural diversity found in the workplace itself and include, but are not limited to:

  • Work location
  • Seniority
  • Union affiliation
  • Management status
  • Functional level/classification
  • Work content/field
  • Division/department/unit/group

Issues of preferential treatment and opportunities for training and development and/or promotion are affected by organizational dimensions.

These dimensions shape and affect both the individual and the organization. Primary dimensions receive the most attention in successful diversity initiatives, while secondary and organizational dimensions often determine the way people are treated in and out of the workplace. Companies must be aware of all of the dimensions in order to use employees’ differences and similarities to create a culture of inclusion.

DIVERSITY VERSES DISCRIMINATION

Many people confuse diversity with discrimination. Diversity differs from discrimination and affirmative action in that it addresses an organization’s culture and is not focused strictly on legal issues. While EEO and Affirmative Action laws have their role in the evolution of the diversity movement today, they are distinctly different from valuing diversity. EEO/Affirmative Action are laws initiated by the government and imposed on people. They are legally driven and usually reactive by nature. On the other hand, diversity initiatives are voluntary, opportunity-focused, company-driven and proactive.

Discrimination and diversity are both important, and leaders in construction companies should recognize and understand both. Discrimination from an employment perspective occurs when a person is treated unfavorably based on category, class or group rather than being treated fairly and equitably on the basis of merit. The basic federal law against job discrimination is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under this law, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, age, religion or disability.

Harassment based on race, sex, religion, color, national origin or disability must be avoided at all costs. No one wants to work in an environment where employees feel demeaned and degraded. This is not only illegal, but also unproductive and can seriously affect morale. Education on harassment issues is extremely important not only because it may prevent future lawsuits, but also because all employees deserve to work in an environment free of harassment based on personal characteristics such as race or gender.

EMBRACING AN INCLUSIVE CULTURE: BRINGING EVERYONE ON BOARD

In order for any diversity initiative to succeed, a number of things must happen.

  • Start with total buy-in from the top. Leaders and executives must show complete commitment that they value and respect all members of the organization (as well as its clients, vendors and other stakeholders) through their actions and words.
  • Obtain buy-in from all levels. Employees from all levels throughout the organization should be included in the very early stages of diversity planning. Planning groups and action teams should have representative participation of most primary, secondary and organizational dimensions where possible. Although 100% direct inclusion is seldom possible, representative inclusion is almost always possible with some creative thinking.
  • Link diversity to the organization’s strategic goals. Diversity plans that are tied directly to a company’s strategic business plans have a much better chance of succeeding than those that are not.
  • Encourage continuous learning. While training is not the only factor in creating a successful diversity program, it is an important part of the process. Programs must be carefully planned and relevant to the organization, as many of the topics that arise during diversity training can be extremely sensitive to some employees. Experienced facilitators should be used whenever possible.
  • Make diversity part of individual performance appraisals. Communicating performance expectations regarding diversity helps to build accountability into the process and also shows organizational commitment.
  • Recognize that diversity is not only about differences, but also about flexibility. Employees who are offered flexible benefits, flexible scheduling and an equitable balance between their work and personal lives are more likely to have higher morale and greater productivity, and stay with the company longer.

Effective communication is the key to it all. Management must formally communicate all diversity plans and activities if the effort is to achieve its intended goal of creating an inclusive and diverse culture. Timely and accurate information reported to all employees not only helps with buy-in into the entire process, but also helps to reduce any rumor mills that the lack of communication or misinformation can bring about.

BENEFITS OF IMPLEMENTING A DIVERSITY PLAN

Some of the benefits of instituting a diversity plan include the following:

  • Keeping and/or gaining market share. Building positive relationships with both employees and customers enhances marketing efforts and creates a positive, constructive public image with a record of support on diversity issues.
  • Employee recruiting. When employees feel their work environment is diverse and inclusive, they become ambassadors for the company, bringing members of their community into the organization. When someone actively recruits a new employee, he or she often assumes responsibility for that person’s success in the company, building an informal mentoring matrix in the process.
  • Employee retention. Employees who feel that their work environment is not welcoming are eventually going to leave, or, even worse, they will stay, become unproductive and lower the morale of other employees. Recruitment and training of new employees is expensive, and constant turnover is costly to a company’s bottom line. By valuing diversity and creating a welcoming work environment, employees will want to stay.
  • Increased productivity and profitability. Higher levels of productivity can be encouraged through individually based motivators and effective group behavior practices that promote collaboration and the sharing of ideas. Diversity helps to foster teamwork, which in turn increases productivity and profits. Differences in perspectives can often lead to team success.
  • Reduced legal costs. Six- and seven-figure damage awards are becoming more common when employers do not comply with employment laws. It simply does not make good business sense not to be aware of these laws and to ensure that the workplace is discrimination- and harassment-free.
  • Improved customer service. Communicating with customers to provide exceptional service is often a challenge, as is working with a diverse range of customers. Improving an organization’s cultural climate can build awareness, communication and other skills to serve all customers better and help to eliminate challenges and barriers related to diversity. The payoffs include keeping customers loyal and strengthening profits and good will.

CONCLUSION

A company that values diversity reflects today’s changing world and marketplace. Diverse work teams bring high value to organizations. Respecting individual differences will benefit the workplace by creating a competitive edge and increasing work productivity. An organization that values diversity creates a fair, safe and legal environment where everyone has access to opportunities and challenges.


Kelley Chisholm is editor of FMI Quarterly. She can be reached at 919.785.9215 or via email at kchisholm@fminet.com.

 

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