Thursday, February 10, 2011

The financial benefit of diversity as a strategy

It has been my observation that companies treat diversity as a compliance tool rather than a strategic one. Legally they do what they must, and culturally they box it into the "defensive measures" category of reputation management, doing just enough so that people can't say that they are biased.

Wow is that shortsighted (dumb).

Real diversity would stomp out all the meetings where homogeneous (or brainwashed, or intimidated) people talk about the weather and vacation, drink coffee with packets of Equal and those too-little half-and-half cups, stuff their faces with muffins and bagels, then "debate" and "settle" on the equivalent of junk-food ideas before heading off to the next meeting, then lunch and the gym.

The cost of a wasted meeting = hourly salary x # of people. Imagine $50 an hour x 10 and you have $500 right there. Was it useful?

The cost of a poorly thought out initiative or program, of course, can run into the millions, billions, even trillions if you imagine the scale on which groupthink can produce bad ideas.

The real definition of diversity is NOT, as has been pointed out many times, skin color or gender or the hiring of people who have clearly visible disabilities. Diversity is in the brain. And it takes many different kinds of brainpower to run a company. To create ads that symbolize diversity by showing smiling people who look different with their arms around each other isn't just misguided, but tired, cheesy, and misses the point.

The bottom line is, we aren't in kindergarten anymore. We are adults and we must learn to tolerate and eventually encourage constructive, open disagreement about important things.

To my mind, then, a really good diversity poster would resemble something like Apple's "Think Different" campaign - focusing not on looks, but on what's inside.

Good diversity communications sells the concept to the audience in terms of what it can do for them. Not by appealing to sentiment or morality. Because self-interest is a primary motivator - survival - while morality is seen as a nice-to-have in comparison.

For example, from an internal communications perspective, people are at work to work - and we are all diverse. We want to know that our jobs are secure. We feel more secure when we are valued for being ourselves. When the company doesn't squash individuality but leverages it to contribute to the bottom line.

From an external communications (PR) point of view, companies that use diversity strategically are simply more valuable than those that don't. That makes them attractive to investors.

This doesn't mean you can't talk about the softer side. People want to work in a welcoming place, and in today's transparent world, diversity will also appeal to customers interested in patronizing socially responsible brands.

It is a challenging environment we live in today. But we do have the brainpower to overcome our challenges and thrive. A good way to start is by encouraging and sustaining dialogue between people who think different.