If you watch or listen to the news, you’ll hear reports of employment discrimination, sexual harassment, and unfairness in hiring. Maybe your company is having problems with one or more of these issues due to more diversity today in the workforce.

Whether your organization uses an outside search firm or it conducts its own recruiting, your diversity initiative will depend on knowing where to best find top-notch candidates. Where are you finding your talented people? The success of your initiative will hinge on making certain that all of the hiring instruments that are being used (e.g., interviews and tests) are “fair” to females and minorities.

Diversity is a business objective that must start at the top. For it to be truly valued in any organization, there must be a significant level of senior management support starting with you. What is your company’s representation of women and minorities in senior management? To what degree are they represented in middle-level management and in key decision making positions? They should be.

According to former Xerox CEO and Chairperson Ann Malcahy, “Experience tells us that most diverse companies – those ruled by a hierarchy of imagination and filled with people of all ages, races, and backgrounds – are the most successful over time.” Start by making diversity a part of your company’s corporate values, and look for ways to foster the upward mobility of women and minorities. .

If you and others in your organization are going to support diversity, what do you need to do? Minimize differences between people. When a manager says, “I didn’t even notice that you are Hispanic,” what that manager is really communicating to the person is, “The difference between us is not important to me; I see you as being just like me.” You and others don’t have to feel that you must “walk on eggs” around people who are different. With an open and tactful demeanor, talk with them about their unique cultures and backgrounds.

It’s not enough to bring large numbers of people from diverse background into your company and assume that everything will work out. You need to make certain that your managers and supervisors have the skills needed to manage diversity effectively. They may have attended management development programs or gone through executive coaching on such skills as empowerment and time management, but have they received any training in managing a diverse workforce? This type of training is a must! It should accomplish two basic objectives: raising awareness and building skills. Organizations we know such as Ford, Hewlett-Packard, 3M, Exxon, and the Internal Revenue Service have reported a great deal of success using programs of this type.

Most management best-selling books that give you advice on how to motivate employees are based on the assumption of a homogeneous white male work force. The fact is that some of the methods recommended can be counterproductive when applied to women and/or various racial and ethnic groups.

We have met several executives and managers who feel it is a mistake to think that employees have different needs based on their cultural backgrounds. We agree wholeheartedly with Daisy Chin-Lor, Avon’s Director of Multicultural Planning and Design, who eloquently counters this erroneous way of thinking – “If I were planting a garden and wanted to have a number of flowers, I would never give every flower the same amount of sun, the same amount of water, and the same amount of soil. I’d be sure to cultivate each individual type of flower differently. Does that mean that the rose or the orchid is less because I have to do more with them? Certainly not.”

Here’s an example of what she means – One of the department managers in an organization that we consult with was quite excited with the work performed on a project by one of his employees, a Native American. The manager decided to reward him with a lot of fanfare and congratulations in front of his peers, just as many management books suggest. This person felt uncomfortable with public attention, especially with his Native American friends. This employee didn’t come to work for several days!

Unwritten rules for getting ahead are a fact of life in any organization. These rules are never written down in black and white, yet they have a large impact on one’s career success within the organization. Here are a few examples:

  • Who should associate with whom away from work?
  • How strongly can employees disagree with their managers in public?
  • Should high-level executives be addressed formally or informally?

Most white males know the rules; they’ve been playing by them since their were young. In fact, they created the rules; in most companies they are in control and are “calling the shots.” One of your most important responsibilities as a leader is to ensure that the employees in your organization who are unfamiliar with these rules hear about them. That doesn’t mean that all employees must follow all rules all the time. However, if employees want to be successful within an organization’s milieu, some degree of conformity is appropriate. Make certain that your managers are encouraged to help their direct reports to “fit” into the company culture and not get derailed..

One of the key factors in mastering diversity within your company is to expect some friction among employees. But don’t let this dissuade your efforts. Make sure your HR staff sets up processes for resolving conflicts as quickly and painlessly as possible. For instance, we have worked with some companies that have ombudsmen whose primary function is to listen to and resolve interpersonal conflicts.

Most of us prefer to socialize with people who are like ourselves. We also have a better opinion of them. Research has shown conclusively that people have a tendency to like and to think more favorably of other people whom they perceive as similar to themselves. It is flattering and rewarding to find others who are similar to us. Don’t you have friends who tend to have the same values and attitudes about things as you do? This is fine in our private lives; we are certainly free to select friends with whom we feel most comfortable. However, it becomes a problem at work when we tend to like and trust more those co-workers who are similar to us, while disliking and distrusting those who are different in, perhaps, race or nationality. As the leader, you need to make sure that your employees are aware of the “Similar-To-Me Effect,” and that they make a conscious effort to guard against their natural tendency to “bond” more with those who are like them.

Diversity should not be done for diversity’s sake. Instead, it should be viewed by you and everyone in your company as the right business decision. In a recent article in KAWG & F’s (a Towson-based CPA firm now called Katz Abosch) monthly magazine, Wendy Hoke pointed out that “…diversity breeds creativity. Maybe it’s because people with different backgrounds challenge each other’s underlying assumptions, freeing everybody from convention and orthodoxy.” We find that more and more of our clients are coming to realize that their market share can be increased when customers see some people of their own race, sex, and/or ethnic background as retail managers, salespeople, car dealers, and service people.