Recipe for Success – Melt or Stir Gently? Homogenization vs. Diversification

A growing number of Americans now drive out to the countryside to buy non-homogenized milk directly from small, family-owned farms. Why? Because it has more flavor than the sanitized, grocery store variety. It’s also more satisfying.

Diversity in the workplace isn’t about eradicating the attitudes, styles, characteristics, and cultural traits which make people different, but about respecting and celebrating those differences. Studies show that diverse workforces have an edge over their more homogenous competitors when it comes to innovation. A team made up of people of different genders, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, and religions will, by its varied nature, be more dynamic in its approach to creating new products and services and improving old ones. Such teams also put a more diverse spin on the advertising of these products and services. Bland down your employees’ differences by, overtly or subtly, encouraging them all to think and act the same and you will end up with the human resources equivalent of homogenized grocery-store milk.

When I was in school, teachers taught us that America was one big melting pot into which generation after generation of immigrants was assimilated. Today the trend in American schools, as well as in American society, is to move away from assimilation and towards multiculturalism. Drawing on the art and music and cuisine and traditions of  immigrants makes our country more colorful and more interesting than any melting pot ever could. To derive the greatest benefits from your employees’ backgrounds, do not push a culture of assimilation but one of mutual respect. This, in turn, will attract a more diverse customer base.  As whites slowly lose their foothold as the majority race in our country, appealing to more diverse clientele simply makes good business sense.

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In her recent commentary “2013: The Year Men Became Obsolete?” for Time Magazine (December 30, 2013) Camille Paglia addressed the error Americans have made in expecting successful, high-achieving women to act like men.  “In France, Italy, Spain and Latin America, by contrast, many ambitious women seem to have found a formula for asserting power and authority in the workplace while still projecting sexual allure and even glamor. This is the true feminine mystique, which cannot be taught but flows from an instinctive recognition of sexual differences.”

The purpose of diversity training should not be to create a gender-blind, race-blind, homogenous workforce, but a workforce which values and capitalizes on the diverse merits and strengths of its employees.

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Foot-in-Mouth-Disease – The Benefits and Pitfalls of Maintaining a Presence on the Web

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Shortly before boarding her flight out of London’s Heathrow Airport,  IAC Director of Corporate Communications  Justine Sacco tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

By the time Ms. Sacco landed  in Cape Town,  her words had gone viral, sparking thousands of  tweets worldwide.  Or should I say thousands of angry buzzes? It seems  Ms. Sacco had become the Girl Who’d Kicked a Global Hornets’ Nest, as well as the poster face for over-privileged-white insensitivity.   The next day, IAC announced that Justine Sacco was no longer employed by them.

While I have no sympathy for Ms. Sacco, her story reminds me of the delicate balancing act we must all perform in today’s social media engulfed world.   An ever increasing number of employers now Google job applicants as part of their initial screening process. If you don’t have a ‘presence’ on the web, many prospective employers will not consider you, based on the assumption that you are not technologically savvy and that you lack twenty-first century social networking skills.

However, it’s not simply enough for just your name, photo, and a few dull facts to show up on LinkedIn or Facebook. A lot of employers are specifically seeking out employees who are a cultural fit, meaning they are looking at your hobbies, the type of volunteer work you do, the groups you belong, and the social and political comments you make to determine whether you are a good match for their organization. Career-minded job applicants are learning they have to brand themselves through their online image in order to sell themselves to employers.

At the same time, the more we reveal about ourselves  online, the greater the risk that we will commit some faux pas. It may not go viral as Ms. Sacco’s did, but it may linger on the web for years, readily accessible to anyone who Googles our name.  In fact, some employers are actually contracting firms to run Social Media Background Checks.

This, in turn, has spawned yet another type of business. Repplers,for example, now offers  a ” a tool for scrubbing your social networking accounts of job-damaging material.”

By the way, Ms. Sacco’s viral tweet does not mark the first time she’s shown a lack of judgement in the world of social media. Last January she tweeted, “I can’t be fired for things I say while intoxicated right?” Sober or otherwise, she has much to learn about public relations.

In the meantime, what do you bet that IAC will be scrupulously vetting the social networking history of its next Director of Corporate Communications?

She’s a BRIC House

In their recent interview with Alice Andors for  HR Magazine (“Hidden in Plain Sight” January 2012), economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett and executive vice president of the Center for Talent Innovation Ripa Rashid postulated that there is a direct correlation between the education and corporate advancement of a country’s female workforce and the country’s economic growth. They specifically pointed out that the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), whose combined markets have accounted for forty-five percent of global economic growth since 2007, have this very thing in common. These countries are educating their young women at higher rates than they ever have before and they have outpaced the United States in the percentage of senior management positions held by women.

According to Hewlett, in 2009 Brazilian women held thirty percent of executive positions compared to the twenty percent held by women in the United States.  Likewise, women hold thirty-two percent of  senior management positions in China. In the United States only twenty-three percent of senior management positions are held by women.

There is, however, a dark side to the professional success of women in these countries. According to Rashid’s research, women working in management positions in the BRIC countries commonly put in over sixty hours a week. Highly qualified Chinese women employed by global companies work an average of seventy-one hours a week, while Russian women in senior positions put in seventy-three hours a week.

The emphasis on work-life balance here in the United States may be holding some women back from making the same strides as their ambitious counterparts in BRIC countries. At the same time, taking steps to enable and encourage more young American women to pursue degrees in the science, technology, engineering, and math (the STEM fields facing a shortage of qualified employees) and encouraging the promotion of deserving women into senior and executive management positions could spur economic growth here at home.

Declaration of Interdependence

It’s common knowledge that the original Declaration of Independence was, for all practical purposes, written by, for, and about white male property owners. What would happen if we gave that declaration a twenty-first century makeover? The heart of the revised text might read something like this.

We hold these truths — following years of eye-opening civil rights marches, presidential proclamations,  and federal legislation — to have finally been made evident, that all men and all women, of all ages, races, religions, ethnicities, national origins, sexual orientations,  abilities, disabilities, and perceived disabilities, are endowed by their Creator — or by One Big Bang Randomly Scattering Sub-Atomic Particles — with certain Litigable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Equal Pay for Equal Work.  To secure these rights, the EEOC, along with local, district, and supreme courts, are instituted among Men and Women and Transgenders, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed — that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to hold Tea Parties and to Occupy Wall Street and to pose questions via Facebook to Candidates Competing in Endless Televised Debates to institute a new Government as most likely to Lower Unemployment, to  Raise the Stock Market, to Protect Property Values, and to keep Terrorists, Tax Collectors, and  Drug Lords at bay.

Say What? Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?

Has political correctness gone too far? Are supervisors going mute for fear of saying anything offensive? Have politically correct extremists become as narrow-minded and judgmental as the religious extremists and bigots and racists they themselves condemn?

I could not help asking myself this question last December when a visiting African asked me why it is considered offensive in the United States to wish someone a Merry Christmas. He could not fathom why this expression of good will was condemned by so many Americans and why the words Happy Holidays were considered a more appropriate greeting. We had a long talk about America as a melting pot and about Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists living side by side, but he still found the censure of “Merry Christmas” perplexing. As he put it, “It would not offend me if a Jewish person wished me a Happy Chaunkah.”

Derogatory, racist, misogynistic terms, without question, have no place in the workforce. However, with language forever evolving, it’s sometimes difficult for people to keep up with which terms they should and should not use. Once upon a time, Negro was an acceptable designation for an American of African descent. Later that term was considered derogatory and people were told to use the word Black instead. That word, in turn, has become offensive to some and has since been replaced by African American.

In some circles, the mere mention of God is considered offensive lest there be an atheist present.

In her February 2010 online article “Oops! What to Do When an Employee Says the Wrong Thing,” Rebecca Hastings talks about one of Human Resources’ latest responsibilities: coaching management on how to avoid the use of terms employees may find offensive and which might be grounds for costly lawsuits.
At the same time, Hastings acknowledges the difficulty of educating managers in the correct use of terminology when the connotations of certain words change from one day to the next. She quotes Communications Consultant Tim O’Brien’s statement that “people with disabilities currently abhor words like crippled, handicapped, mute, infirm, special and challenged.”

Special and challenged are now considered offensive. What’s left?

This issue isn’t new. In her 2008 MC-SHRM online article, “The Paralysis of Political Correctness,” Valda Boyd Ford voiced her concern about how our country’s obsession with political correctness is causing an outright paralysis in the workplace. “Today, we are awash in workplace- or business-related incidents where a casual comment, remark or question can invoke profound misunderstandings and consequences. People have grown afraid to voice their opinions and communicate honestly.”

Ford went on to describe the challenges facing executives as they, “Spend weeks and months working on every detail, speech and announcement to avoid faux pas.”

The extremes to which political correctness is taken seem to vary from coast to coast. Out in Hollywood, live award show MC’s are being carefully vetted and sit-coms sanitized of any hint of political incorrectness. Meanwhile, another type of democracy is alive and well back east where programs like Thirty Rock and Saturday Night Live do not discriminate but make fun of everyone and everything regardless of creed, race, and ethnicity.

Surely all human resources professionals will agree that there is no place for hurtful, insulting, racist, or derogatory language in our workplaces, but how do we deal with the constantly shifting sand of language and with a culture that takes political correctness too far? If it is our responsibility to coach our executives and supervisors in acceptable language, how do we balance that with their need to be able to speak openly and with confidence to their workers? And how can we promote diversity in our workforce and recognize of the inherent value of our employees’ different religious, ethnic, and national backgrounds if we’re expected to tiptoe around any and all references to Christmas and Chanukah and Cinco de Mayo and Ramadan and all the wonderful cultural contributions our workers’ varied different backgrounds have to offer?