Diversity Pays Off for Everyone

Business owners, it’s time to do more than just pay lip service to diversity. In case you haven’t noticed, every state in America now hosts multicultural communities. Whether you translate diversity into African-American, Asian-American, disabled, ethnic, female, gay, immigrant, Latino, minority, Native American, seniors, special needs, urban — or any other group besides so-called mainstream white male — rainbow demographics are a fact of business life.

This is dramatically spelled out in a recent U.S. Department of Labor report, called “Futurework: Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century”: “By 2050, the U.S. population is expected to increase by 50% and minority groups will make up nearly half of the population. Immigration will account for almost two-thirds of the nation’s population growth. The population of older Americans is expected to more than double. One-quarter of all Americans will be of Hispanic origin. Almost one in 10 Americans will be of Asian or Pacific Islander descent. And more women and people with disabilities will be on the job.”

What does this mean to you? Any company that wants to stay competitive must come to terms with diversity — inside and outside the organization. Of course, the legal and moral arguments for diversity are unassailable. Discriminatory hiring practices not only demean the human spirit, they’ve been against the law for decades. Nonetheless, employers have been notoriously slow to change.

No one thought much about making the business case for diverse employment until reports of the changing workforce and consumer demographics added up to a new math. At the same time, social and political policies like “minority quotas” and “affirmative action” turned controversial for advocates and critics alike, and even ran afoul of the law, as with university admissions polices. Nowadays, global corporations are busy recruiting diverse work groups because of profit motives. It’s good for business. Small and mid-tier firms would be smart to follow that example.

Here are five key business reasons to hire a diverse staff.

1. All business is now international. There’s no such thing as a local company anymore. “The Internet has influenced all commerce,” says Ilene Wasserman, founder of the ICW Consulting Group in Penn Valley, Pa. “I may be a Mom and Pop shop, but I can’t afford a localized or provincial attitude about what we carry and serve.”Every business, whether small-town retailer or international marketer must be savvy about the future generations and how we will trade goods and services across national borders and in multiple languages.

2. Conflict is a good thing. Small-business owners may hesitate to hire qualified candidates different than themselves or the rest of the staff because of worries about resulting tension. But think about it. New ideas only emerge from friction and need. Innovation only arises out of conflict. Comfort zones are hardly the birthplaces of creativity. Plus, a company’s values and culture begin at the top.”Small businesses often grow up around a founder and lots of family members,” says management consultant Adrian Savage, author of “A Spark from Heaven.” “It’s hard for outsiders to come into such a cozy environment. You either fit in with them or you don’t fit in at all. But that makes the resulting business extremely inflexible.” Diverse groups of people, points out Savage, will have better antenna to see opportunities that you will miss.

3. Small pools run dry. With competition fierce and markets international, why narrow your search for skilled help to shallow areas of the talent pool? “We often hire people because we ‘like’ them,” says attorney Carol Merchasin, managing director at Morgan Lewis law firm in Philadelphia. “And we ‘like’ them because they look like us.” Instead, suggests Merchasin, take away the screen of ‘liking.’ Focus on precise skills, competencies and experience to do the job you need done.

While you’re at it, evaluate your preconceived notions. For example, Joyce Bender runs a technology consulting company, which partners with larger firms to provide employment for people with disabilities. She often faces the perception that workers with disabilities are “sick” or “absent” a lot. The reality? “I offer a $400 bonus to workers each year who don’t miss a day of work. And I can’t tell you how many bonuses I’ve given to employees who haven’t missed a day of work in five years. People with disabilities have to overcome obstacles and discrimination. They have to figure out how to get into and out of buildings. They’ve been in tough situations and it’s made them flexible problem solvers. They’re really good workers for small businesses.”

4. Diversity drives sales. Nearly 80% of Fortune 500 companies now have some kind of diversity efforts in place, says Fred Miller in his book, “The Inclusion Breakthrough: Unleashing the Real Power of Diversity.” Increasingly, government and corporate vendors will contract only with suppliers that can demonstrate “cultural readiness,” according to Miller.”The world is changing,” says Miller, who runs the Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group in Troy, N.Y. “If it’s not on your doorstep now, it will be soon. You can’t wait. Reaction time must be instantaneous.”

5. Stable staffs are cost-effective. Suzanne and James Faustlin purchased their Tucson, Ariz., franchise for the Maids Home Service in the late 1990s. The business then had 13 employees and $250,000 in revenues, says Suzanne. Within a few years, the couple had grown the staff to 34 and revenues to$750,000.Like many home cleaning services, the staff is all female and more than 50% minority, in this case Hopi Native American and Hispanic. But unlike many such services, the Faustlins play up the cultural differences. “We think it’s fun and the uniqueness of the traditions is an advantage,” says Suzanne. Every workday starts with an early potluck breakfast. “We get tamales from different types of corn and Hopi blue marble bread,” she says. “We encourage intermingling of the teams. It’s a way to deal with the stresses.” Suzanne says the staff also celebrates many different holidays. She credits those management policies with low staff turnover and easier recruitment. “We encourage employees to refer people and we offer a finder’s fee.” The result: A very stable staff. “We have several family members working together.”

Creating an inclusive company culture that values and respects individual difference is likely to yield tangible, bottom-line results. “Nobody can afford a work force that doesn’t contribute its best work,” Miller says. “Why settle for a sprint when you can win the marathon?”


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