I was talking to a minority small-business owner, and he said he couldn’t understand why a business owner or corporate executive would resist having a diverse workplace. I asked whether his business was diverse, and he said it was.
“How is your business diverse,” I said, “when all your employees are of the same ethnicity?”
The small-business owner I was talking to is not alone in his opinion — I know because other small-business owners have shared the same opinion — that because he employs people from groups that are often under-represented in the workplace, his workplace is diverse.
But a diverse workforce is made up of men and women of different:
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▪ Sexual orientation
▪ Socioeconomic status
What’s the big deal?
Having a diverse workforce is more than a good idea. It’s good business. Today’s marketplace is as diverse as ever, so you need employees who can understand, relate and respond to customers and prospective customers from every conceivable background.
Corporate executives realized long ago — some taking steps to achieve a diverse workforce as far back as the mid-’90s — that diversity makes good business sense, but they didn’t go to such lengths and change the complexion of their corporations because they realized it was the right thing to do. They realized it was the profitable thing to do.
A 70-page report on corporate diversity found: “Organizations which excel at leveraging diversity (including the hiring and advancement of women and [minority] men into senior-management jobs and providing a climate conducive to contributions from people of diverse backgrounds) will experience better financial performance in the long run than organizations which are not effective in managing diversity.”
The report mentioned a study by Covenant Investment Management that rated the performance of the Standard and Poor’s 500, focusing on factors related to the hiring and advancement of women and minorities.
The study found that the 100 companies rating lowest in equal-employment opportunities averaged a 7.9% rate of return while the 100 companies rating highest in equal-opportunity opportunities averaged an 18.3% rate of return.
More than just people
Your business needs a diverse workforce and diverse ideas and opinions. If your employees are constantly saying “That’s what I was thinking” in staff meetings, your business lacks diversity of thought. No matter how talented or well trained your employees, to optimize their collective value, they need to have diverse ideas and opinions. When you begin hearing them say “I never thought about that,” you’ve found the right mix.
Diversity of thought manifests in other ways, too. Is the culture in your sales department different from your accounting culture? It should be. Salespeople process information differently from accountants, and salespeople tend to be more outgoing. One is no more important than the other, and you need both departments operating at their best for your business to succeed. If you acknowledge and encourage employees’ differences, they will feel at ease expressing themselves.
Forbes, in a 2014 article, said researchers found that groups of diverse problem solvers outperformed groups of high-ability problem solvers. Think about this. Conventional wisdom in business says hire the best and brightest — and you certainly should — but be sure your best and brightest come from different backgrounds.
Scott Page, in his book “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies,” uses mathematical models and case studies to show that a diverse workforce outperforms a workforce lacking diversity and is more productive. Here’s what he said in a New York Times interview:
“Diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it. People from different backgrounds have varying ways of looking at problems, what I call ‘tools.’ The sum of these tools is far more powerful in organizations with diversity than in ones where everyone has gone to the same schools, been trained in the same mold, and thinks in almost identical ways.”
“The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place. But if we have people with diverse tools, they’ll get stuck in different places. One person can do their best, and then someone else can come in and improve on it. There’s a lot of empirical data to show that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions, the most innovative companies are diverse.”
No idea is a bad idea
More than a few ideas that were initially scoffed at became innovations that changed the American landscape. As a small-business owner, you decide the fate of an idea. Some become the topic of discussion in future meetings, and some are never mentioned again. Perhaps the idea seemed far out. Maybe it failed to win consensus. Perhaps the “wrong person” thought of it.
When you run a small business, it’s easy to dismiss an idea with a simple “Let’s move on,” but before you do that, have your employees brainstorm the idea. You may see no potential in the idea, and most of your employees may see none either. But one employee may see potential, and what that person sees could be the next big thing.
It’s obviously not possible for a sole proprietorship to mirror its target market, but if you have employees, ensure they look different and think differently. The late Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” may have said it best: “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.”
Marvin Carolina Jr. is a vice president for JE Dunn Construction. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.