Boosting workforce diversity

Employers use various means to increase workforce diversity. Many companies, such as Baxter healthcare Corporation, start by adopting strong company policies advocating the benefits of a culturally, racially, and sexually diverse workforce: Baxter International believes that a multi cultural employee population is essential to the company’s leadership in healthcare around the world. Baxter then publicizes this philosophy throughout the company.

Next, Baxter takes a concrete step to foster diversity at work. These steps include evaluating diversity program efforts, recruiting minority members to the board of directors, and interacting with representative minority groups and networks. Diversity training is another concrete activity. It aims at sensitizing all employees about the need to value differences, build self esteem, and generally create a more smoothly functioning and hospitable environment for the firm’s diverse workforce.

As another example, minority employees’ “network groups” can help companies retain managerial level minority employees. Minority employees usually initiate network groups themselves, although management will then typically provide ongoing support. The network groups aim to help minority employees better connect to each other and to provide mutually beneficial information, social support, and mentoring. In one study, participation in network groups was associated with participant’s favorable turnover intentions, feelings of social inclusion, and satisfaction with the network itself for professional and supervisory employees. Researchers found no similar positive effects for other employees, however.

Workforce diversity makes strategic sense: Firms reach out to a broader customer base, they need employees who understand particular customer preferences and requirements. Longo Toyata in EI Monte, California, built its competitive strategy on that idea. With a 60 person sales force that speaks more than 20 languages, Longo’s staff provides a powerful competitive advantage for catering to an increasingly diverse customer base. The HR department has thereby contributed to Longo’s success. While other dealerships lose half their salespeople every year, Longo retains 90% of its staff, in part by emphasizing a promotion from within policy that’s made more than two thirds of its minorities managers. It has also taken steps to attract more women; for instance, by adding sales management staff to spend time providing the training inexperienced salespeople usually need. In a business in which competitors can easily imitate products, showrooms, and most services, Longo has built a competitive advantage based on employee diversity.

However, while there is anecdotal evidence supporting the idea that diversity has both positive and negative effects on performance, a recent five year study found “few positive or negative direct effects of diversity on performance”. To tell if the diversity initiatives are effective there are some commonsense questions to ask. The employer should be able to answer the following affirmatively:

* Women and minorities have a fair share of the job assignments that are the traditional steppingstones to successful careers in the company.
* Women and minorities have equal access to international assignments.
The employer taking steps that ensure female and minority candidates will be in the company’s career development pipeline.
* Turnover rates for female and minority managers are the same or lower than those for white male managers.

Some employers try to boost and manage diversity through voluntary affirmative action programs. Affirmative action means employers make an extra effort to hire and promote those in protected groups. The aim is to voluntarily enhance employment opportunities for women and minorities.

Equal employment opportunity aims to ensure that anyone, regardless of race, color, disability, sex, religion, national origin, or age, has an equal chance for a job based on his or her qualifications. Affirmative action goes beyond equal employment opportunity by requiring the employer to make an extra effort to hire and promote those in a protected group. Affirmative action thus includes specific actions to eliminate the present effects of past discriminations.

An affirmative action program should result in measurable, yearly improvements in hiring, training, and promotion of minorities and females in all parts of the organization.

While the goals are somewhat similar, note that diversity management programs differ from traditional affirmative action programs in both philosophy and method. For example, managing diversity is voluntary, while traditional affirmative action programs are often mandatory.