Cultivating Diversity in 2009

Published: Mar 18, 2009

Cultivating Diversity in 2009
By Wendy Lalli

America has always been a melting pot of different ethnic groups, but in the twenty-first century the proportions and flavoring of our national recipe have become more sophisticated and intricate. Just consider these three developments: according to statistics published by the Associated Press minorities will compose the majority of the American population by 2042; a multi-racial 46 year old named Barack Obama was elected as the 44th President of the United States and that same President has created a White House Council on Women and Girls "to provide a coordinated federal response to the challenges confronted by women and girls..." However you look at it, diversity is playing a major role in America's changing cultural landscape.

Diversity. A profitable policy
According to Cedric Herring, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago who researched the effect of diversity within corporations, “not only is having a diverse workforce a good and socially responsible thing for companies to do, but in addition, organizations that broaden their pool of qualified workers also reap material economic benefits from doing so." Quoted in “Management Issue,” Herring has found that, “businesses with greater racial diversity reported higher sales revenues, more customers, larger market shares, and greater relative profits than those with more homogeneous workforces.”

Where to find qualified minority candidates
Corporate recruiters looking for qualified minority candidates only need to use their creativity, imagination and the search engines on their computers. While they can’t list being a member of a minority as part of the qualifications for positions they’re trying to fill, they can post the job notices in places that are likely to have a high readership among minority audiences. For example, on Internet job boards of associations serving the groups they want to reach. Such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Association of Asian Professionals, the National Society of Hispanic Professionals. National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, Inc., the Association for Women in Science, to name just a few.

Another way to attract minority applicants is to offer scholarships through these organizations or to become an association sponsor. Corporate recruiters can also join appropriate groups on social networking sites like LinkedIn where they can post notices about open positions. Just type in a key word in the search box and see what groups pop up.

Build relationships – and a reputation for diversity – with minority institutions
In a 2004 article in “InfoBrief,” writer Richard Bennof describes minority colleges as “an important subset of the universe of academic institutions.” The article goes on to note that “historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), and tribal colleges …. receive funds from Federal agencies in support of research and development and other science and engineering activities. More than for non-minority-serving institutions, these Federal S&E dollars are allocated relatively less for R&D and relatively more for S&E capacity-building activities … to create the infrastructure to do research and the training of scientists and engineers.” Clearly, proactively supporting these schools is an excellent way for corporate recruiters to build rapport and awareness of their organization among up and coming minority scientists. Offering internships, attending job fairs on a regular basis, and connecting with both the career development offices and alumni associations at these institutions can help corporate recruiters access, identify, and engage minority candidates.

Of course, hiring minorities is only the beginning of being able to reap the full value of a diverse workforce. The other half is creating an environment where these hires feel comfortable and confident enough to thrive. A classic example of a successful corporate initiative to meet this criteria took place at IBM in the early 1990’s under the leadership of CEO Lou Gerstner. Realizing that IBM’s all white male management team didn’t reflect the diversity of its market, customers and employees, Gerstner introduced a company-wide program of diversity task-forces to literally change the face of the organization. Led first by Gerstner and later by his successor CEO Sam Palmisano, the task-forces achieved ground-breaking results over the course of eight years. Consider these numbers: female executives increased by 370 percent, ethnic minority executives increased by 233 percent and self-identified gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender executives increased by 733 percent. Just as impressively, the company was able to take advantage of changes in government regulations as well as cultural developments to increase both its business and its reputation as an industry leader.

Four principles to turn diversity into profit
In his study, “IBM Finds Profit in Diversity,” published September 27, 2004 by the Harvard Business School, David A. Thomas interviewed more than 50 IBM employees at all levels and found that the initiative Gerstner started presented “a significant philosophical shift – from a long tradition of minimizing differences to amplifying them and to seizing on the business opportunities they present…IBM had a long practice of being blind to differences and gathering demographic information only to ensure that hiring and promotion decisions didn’t favor any particular group. So this new approach of calling attention to differences, with the hope of learning from them and making improvements to the business, was a radical departure.”

Once a “radical departure,” the policy that IBM developed in the 1990’s makes even more sense today. Clearly, supporting a diverse work force not only enhances a company’s ability to serve its customers, increase professional opportunities for its employees, and ensure a more profitable return for its stockholders, in 2009 it’s also an authentic demonstration of a contemporary corporate culture.

Three ideas to help nurture and retain diversity hires.

1. Create company-wide mentoring programs. Mentors can be senior members of the team or experienced minority peers who are willing to help ease new hires into the organizational culture.

2. Organize support groups among new hires and interns. These can be formed on the basis of working within a particular department or reflect the ethnicity of group members. The point is, to encourage team interaction, create a sense of connection to others – and foster company loyalty..

3. Invest in benefit programs to serve the “sandwich generation.” Consider the advantages of initiating family-friendly services such as on-site day care and elder care. The demand of caring for vulnerable family members is one of the major career conflicts women face in the life science industry. Resolving some of these conflicts not only supports a company’s ability to attract women candidates but retain employees across the board. For example, when Abbott Laboratories made a commitment to helping employees deal with life/work balance issues at every life stage, the company’s employee retention rate scored between 94 and 96 percent for all racial/ethnic groups and for both men and women. Now that’s change we can all believe in!

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