Five years ago, diversity was the buzz word in corporate America, and almost every business was focused on demonstrating its diverse attributes. Major businesses such as Walmart and Coca-Cola required their vendors, including law firms, to respond to detailed RFIs outlining their diversity statistics and programs; diversity consultants were overbooked. Given the recent economic downtown, diversity and other HR initiatives have taken a back seat. Perhaps the lip service that was given to these values was not entirely genuine; one of the mantras of these initiatives was that they were being done not because it was the right thing to do from a social perspective, but because it was the right thing to do to impact the bottom line. If companies really believed that, these programs would still be alive and well, and these initiatives would be used as a gateway to keeping businesses competitive.
I strongly believe that diversity makes a meaningful impact on the bottom line and how a company can stay competitive. However, over time, my definition of diversity has broadened. Several years ago, I made the most important (and surprising) diversity hire of my career. He was blond with blue eyes, of mixed Polish/Irish decent. Ironically, I was hiring him for a position overseeing the diversity programs of our company’s legal department, and when I asked him about his interest in diversity, he said that he was keenly interested in it as a result of his diverse upbringing. Intrigued, I asked for more detail, and he said that he grew up on the verge of poverty, and that as a result of his “economically diverse” background (particularly in New York City, where it can often seem that being born without a trust fund immediately places you in contention for a neighborhood canned goods drive) he felt he brought a different perspective to his work. I hired him, although I was not able to check any diversity box on the HR hiring requisition form, and certainly not as a result of what I thought was a very clever but disingenuous answer to my question about his experience with diversity.
It turned out that his answer couldn’t have been more insightful. Over many years of overseeing diversity programs, and with a history as a strong believer and champion in the importance of making diverse hires, I came to understand that diversity goes well beyond any box that can be checked on a hiring requisition form. Diversity of background, race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation are critical in hiring a strong team. But so too is hiring a team of people with diverse approaches, backgrounds, thinking patterns, working styles and opinions. It is very tempting, and often much easier, to hire people just like us. But truly embracing diversity means a willingness to go outside of our comfort zones and be challenged by those with different approaches and points of view. That is the surest way to strengthen your team, business and bottom line.
Tune in to next month’s entry with tips about how to start or bolster your own diversity program in these times …
Beth Anisman is the CEO of B&Co., a NYC based consultancy and an executive advisor to NexFirm. She can be reached at email@example.com.