HR Roundtable: The Challenge in Tackling What Diversity Really Is

The topic for the March HR Roundtable in Cincinnati generated some buzz even before it convened.

There were people who chose not to attend because they didn’t feel that the topic needed to be discussed anymore because “everyone understands and gets” diversity.

That really isn’t the case, but that was their perspective.

Solid, honest feedback

The attendees who gathered also felt it was something well worth digging into – so they started with these three questions:

  1. Why is diversity still a Corporate taboo?
  2. What are ways in which we are diverse?
  3. How can we have HR integrate diversity seamlessly in the organization?

I hope when you read these notes, you don’t jump to extremes. The feedback from the small groups was solid and honest. It showed that we still have quite a journey ahead of us, but that’s a great place to start!

Why is diversity still a Corporate taboo?

  • People don’t know how to talk about diversity. This may seem staggering after decades of intentional diversity awareness, but the power of social norms and misunderstanding about how we are all different as people isn’t what people want to bring up or focus on. The topic still leaves people tiptoeing around it versus having open, constructive dialogue.
  • We talk about diversity as a “problem.” This is not only true about diversity. It is indicative of how HR approaches every topic. We feel that once something is a problem, then it can be addressed. Until then things should just be left alone. We seem to pride ourselves on “putting out fires.” Honestly, that makes us extremely reactionary and not proactive. Diversity is a fact – not a problem.
  • A lack of clarity on how diversity is defined. HR still talks about diversity from the EEOC filters. If people fall into one of the EEOC categories, then they are diverse. This is a narrow way to look at diversity. It’s true that the EEOC categories to put some descriptive terminology around diversity, but that only scratches the surface as to how diverse all people are even within those categories.
  • Fear of not being politically correct. This is a challenge, but it is sort of an unspoken fear. Instead of talking to each other as humans, we want to place people into a label because we think it helps us if people fit into boxes. This is short-sighted and needs to be addressed. If people use ignorant language that belittles or degrades someone, it’s not right period! It has nothing to do with being politically correct.
  • We don’t like to be honest. Corporations have made “diversity” a program and a system. The thought is that if we have these programs we feel we’re compliant and off the hook because things are in place. As stated before, diversity is a fact (and honestly a strength) of people. They don’t need a program to know they’re diverse.

 What are ways in which we are diverse?

  • The “obvious” ways. We all look different. We all come from different backgrounds, economic strata, education levels, appearances, gender, sexual orientation, etc. The ways we try to categorize people in understanding how they’re made up is a natural way for people to get to know each other. This can be very positive and constructive. When people use these “obvious” difference to stereotype or act against another person, it’s wrong. It should never be tolerated in the workplace (or society).
  • The “subtle” ways. When you dig more and get to know people, you can learn other cool ways in which we are diverse. Everyone has different personality traits, skills sets and levels of emotional intelligence. These factors of our make-up are identified more through assessments and possible training. Knowing that we bring different strengths to the workplace each day is exciting and should be leveraged more and more.
  • Approach. Granted, this is more of a behavioral answer, but our perspective on life and toward others is key when it comes to diversity in the workplace. If you see people as a bother or that they’re burdensome, you will tend to call out others’ differences in negative ways. When you view people poorly, you will get what you see. On the other hand, if you have a positive outlook on people, life, the workplace, etc. – chances are you’ll tend to not point out others’ differences but acknowledge that differences are a reality and we can work together through them instead of using them to separate each other.

How can HR integrate diversity seamlessly in the organization?

  • HR has to be the model. There really doesn’t have to be another answer in this section. If HR can’t model how diversity works within their company’s culture, then you have to take a look at how you practice HR. Start with not being someone who “puts out fires” and be someone who is proactive and forward thinking in your approach. It’s key to making a seamless culture a reality.
  • Establish trust between employees. This is another area where HR can lead the shift that is needed. HR has the chance to be the “safe haven” of the organization. To do this, you must give your trust to others first. It’s not something that must be earned. Without giving trust first and leading the way, others will not take the steps to trust each other.
  • Build relationships. Focus on having people get to know each other, as well as you getting to know them as people and not just employees. Show people that relationships in the workplace can be healthy and lead to productive work. Quit treating people as objects who show up to work. Foster relationships!
  • Move away from a narrow definition of diversity. Take a look at how you define/view diversity currently in your organization. If it seems too narrow, broaden it. Don’t go wild and water it down so that it no longer has meaning, but review what you’re doing and then act. Once diversity seems defined, and something you can make happen in your culture, communicate that to others so they understand diversity as well.
  • Train, review, train again, review, train again. We don’t take enough time to talk about the diversity of humanity that comes to work to do a great job every day! Our diversity training programs are surface level at best because we tend to use them to infer separation instead of inclusion. Teach people how to interact with each other because it’s a great work practice regardless if folks are diverse.
  • Make the uncomfortable comfortable. You know where there are conversations that aren’t happening that could. HR needs to be the bridge in seeing where the obstacles are in communication between people and step in to bring folks together. Stepping around things to hope they’ll get addressed never works. Never has and never will.
  • Meet people where they are. This sounds a bit altruistic, but it’s the truth. Instead of expecting others to meet you where you come from, meet them where they exist. If you can do this as an HR practitioner, you will bring more value to your organization than can be measured. It rarely happens and if you can make this the norm in your company, you will see wild success for all of your employees.

Learning to embrace diversity

It was great to tackle a topic that should never be put on a shelf. There are great discussions that can, and need to, occur regarding diversity.

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Don’t step clear of diversity — embrace it!

Steve Browne

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the Executive Director of Human Resources for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional pizzeria restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio area with 16 locations and over 1,200 team members. Steve has been an HR professional for more than 30 years in the manufacturing, consumer products, and professional services industries. He facilitates a monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati and runs an Internet message board for HR pros that reaches 7,800 plus people weekly. Steve joined the SHRM Board of Directors in January 2016. You can contact him at sbrowne@larosas.com, or on Twitter (@sbrownehr). You can also read more on his personal blog, Everyday People.