Mixed results on business diversity

Bob Moon Jan 19, 2009

Mixed results on business diversity

Bob Moon Jan 19, 2009


Bob Moon: There’s no doubting the astonishing significance of the change of power that’s playing out in Washington this week. Bono was among an all-star cast performing yesterday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with President-elect Obama looking on. The singer recalled the dream that Martin Luther King had spoken of on that very site 46 years earlier. And Bono declared ‘on Tuesday that dream comes to pass.’ Well, maybe not entirely. Despite tremendous progress the dream of diversity still has some distance to go, especially in the American workplace. We’re joined now by Steve Robbins, a diversity consultant based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Thanks for lending us your insights.

Steve Robbins: Thank you very much for having me.

Moon: It was, if I remember correctly, back in 2000 or so that there was a big diversity push at corporations big and small. And people were creating positions like director of diversity, just to make sure goals were reached. So, how are we doing so far?

Robbins: I think the results are mixed. Some organizations are doing very well, some haven’t gone very far at all and some just kind of are still lingering from decades ago. So, I think those organizations who put in chief diversity officers or others like that, who then also made diversity and inclusion initiatives a main priority, have made some strides.

Moon: And what have we specifically accomplished in the workplace?

Robbins: One of the things we’ve done is help to reframe the work of diversity, moving it from what I call a social justice framework, to what I call a problem-solving framework. And helping people to recognize that diversity is not just race and gender; it’s about bringing different types of perspectives together to make an organization stronger.

Moon: Does the workplace largely remain a white male domain, if you will?

Robbins: We tend to find our diversity — if you’re talking about racial and gender diversity — we tend to find that type of diversity in the lower ranks. So, the white male tends to be still the description of the power places in organizations.

Moon: So what’s the answer toward continuing to change that?

Robbins: I think it’s white and male, meaning white males I think have to step out of their world and invite other people in on an intentional basis. I rarely find any white male leaders who intentionally want to keep people out. It’s the unintentional things that we do — not inviting certain folks to play golf with us, or not inviting certain folks to go to lunch with us, or just hanging out with what I call ‘our homies’ and not inviting other people in.

Moon: Do you think the fact that we’re going to have an African-American president in the White House will help us reach our goals?

Robbins: I think it has the great potential to. It also has the potential to lead some people to let their guard down, meaning some people might look at what’s going to happen tomorrow as ‘well, see, it proves that our society in the United States is an open one where the playing field is level,’ when in fact having an African-American president does not necessarily prove that.

Moon: Well, coincidental to the African-American president, we’re also facing some of the biggest economic challenges in our memories. How hard is it, in a down economy, to achieve these diversity goals in that climate?

Robbins: It is very, very difficult. Organizations kind of work like human beings. When we’re under stress in economic times, they try to find their comfort zones. And then they also then try to focus on what they’ve prioritized. Diversity inclusion historically has been something that organizations do when, when everything’s going well. Now, more organizations are starting to understand that yeah, even in down times, we need to find a way to engage all of our employees and also engage potential employees who are, when you look at the demographic mix, that the best and brightest of the 21st century world don’t look like the best and brightest of the 20th century world.

Moon: Steve Robbins is a diversity consultant based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Thank you very much for joining us.

Robbins: Thanks, Bob.

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