Diversity Not Just a Human Resources Function Anymore

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by Melenie J. Lankau

Many business organizations today are experiencing “diversity fatigue.” This is due to disappointing results from all of the diversity initiatives and programs that human resources managers have in place.

At the same time, some businesses are experiencing great success with diversity. The difference often lies in the basic assumptions about diversity, what it means and what it can achieve.

The responsibility for managing diversity and inclusiveness in an organization typically falls within the human resources function. Many organizations today have human resources professionals at the executive level that hold the title of chief diversity officer or chief people officer. This person works with HR managers, function and line managers and executives to create an organizational vision to increase diversity and create a work climate that leverages diversity to achieve higher performance. Organizations may also have focused the responsibility for diversity and inclusion within specific areas inside the human resources function, such as recruiting or talent management.

The major challenge that diversity specialists have is that they are often viewed as “the champion” for diversity and they “own” the accountability. While this may sound like the right way to structure the role, many diversity managers feel this actually makes it easier for others in the organization to think “diversity is that person’s job or priority, so I don’t have to think about it.” This can be problematic because employees and managers may not really understand the importance of leveraging diversity, nor take the time to develop the skills needed to contribute to inclusive work environments.

Dr. Martin Davidson at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business just wrote a book, entitled The End of Diversity as We Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and How Leveraging Difference Can Succeed. Davidson emphasizes that many companies have only focused on attracting and retaining diverse employees and have not critically examined their organizational culture to assess their capabilities to leverage that diversity for learning, innovation and achieving superior results.

The organizations acknowledged as best places to work for minorities are those that have a commitment to diversity from the highest-ranking executives. They expect that everyone in the organization will be equally committed. The value on diversity becomes ingrained in the organizational culture.

Last year I examined the companies rated as best places for diversity by DiversityInc. There were organizational practices that the majority of these organizations held in common:

• Clear and consistent emphasis on value of diversity in communication in vision, mission statement and strategic goals;

• Identification of business drivers for diversity (identifying how diversity can improve organizational results; examples include: innovation and creativity, strength of suppliers, market growth, leveraging human capital and customer satisfaction);

• CEO and top management team involvement in diversity-related activities;

•  Emphasis on diversity at board level;

• Active diversity councils, advisory boards, and employee resource groups;

• Commitment to increasing supplier diversity;

• Formal and facilitated informal mentoring programs;

• Community and philanthropic outreach for multicultural nonprofits;

• Partnerships with educational institutions for increasing minority student enrollment, support and development;

• Measures of progress and accountability mechanisms.

From this list, it becomes obvious that it can’t just be the diversity professional’s job or human resources manager’s responsibility. This level of commitment requires true partnership and participation across functional areas in the organization that align their efforts in support of a shared vision and goals for diversity and inclusion.

At Wake Forest University School of Business, we heard from many employers that the ability to leverage diversity is a critical leadership skill that can differentiate managers’ ability to achieve results in a diverse and global business environment. This year, we are piloting an extracurricular certificate program with our full-time MBA students. The purpose is to offer students extracurricular learning opportunities that will help them develop the leadership skills to build inclusive work environments, value diversity and leverage the unique talents and contributions of every team member.

We want our students to enter organizations and realize that this is part of their obligation and responsibility as an employee and future leader in that organization and not just the HR person’s job.  

Melenie Lankau is senior associate dean of MBA programs and diversity at Wake Forest University School of Business.

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