Smart small businesses today understand diversity is more than just a feel-good notion on a human resources poster. It is, in fact, crucial to doing business in a world whose populations, by virtue of speedy air travel and even speedier Internet service, become more interconnected by the day.
In the U.S. alone, the wide range of people involved in both the making and the consuming of products could include the Indian automotive engineer who is helping to take Ford to the next level; the African American statistician at a Silicon Valley startup; the 65-year-old disabled man who, instead of retiring, has just been promoted; the Gen Y child of immigrants from Central America who excels in Web marketing at Procter & Gamble; the gay woman who is the mother of two; and so on.
As consumers, they are all buying what your business sells—or ignoring it—depending on whether your company is as diverse as they are.
Businesses can no longer dictate to consumers in this increasingly globalized and diversified world. More and more, customers call the shots, and their buying decisions are based in no small part on whether a company and its products are attuned to consumers’ demands and desires. If the company doesn’t pass that test, then the customers will keep shopping until they find one that does.
General Electric has it right when it states its vision of diversity this way: "As a global company, our talent must reflect the communities we serve and with whom we do business."
Once your workplace begins to diversify, how can you ensure a positive experience for all? First, acknowledge—and appreciate—that cultural differences exist; find ways of adapting to new hires rather than forcing them to adapt to the traditional office culture. Encourage communication about differences. Be alert for both verbal and nonverbal cues that might indicate tension. Consider that the root causes of tension could be cultural. Also, examine how your diversity strategy aligned with or differed from your expectations. And don’t neglect the bottom line: Look at how diversifying affected your organization’s performance in terms of sales, efficiencies, and customers gained or lost.
Diversity is a business reality, not just a slogan on an HR poster. The sooner your company understands the new face(s) of business, the greater your prospects of success.
Dean and Professor
Johns Hopkins Carey Business School
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