Throughout my careers as both a New York State Trooper and member of the Air National This Guard, I’ve been able to gain a deep appreciation for what diversity truly means. may be shocking to those who’ve never heard one of my presentations, but as an African – American, I’ve come to understand that diversity isn’t simply about color, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or any other demographic category we’ve created. It’s about performance! Demographics will give you a diverse workforce, but it doesn’t give you diversity. The concept itself is an active process, which requires full engagement between employers and employees. In other words, you can be diverse, but you can’t be diversity! You must have diversity and it requires a focused effort with the right intent from the beginning of the process.
I learned this by having careers in the New York State Police and the United States military. Both had clearly defined missions in which performance could never be seen as a luxury. For members of the military and law enforcement, performance – optimal performance is a bona fide job requirement. To effectively protect and serve the public as a law enforcement officer and ensure our national security is intact within the military, each member must perform at their best. Why? Because lives are at stake. The question is, how do we accomplish these tasks utilizing the diverse population we have within the United States? The answer, recruit, hire, train, promote, in spite of demographics, not because of them. As a black-male, my skin color has never performed a task nor will it ever. However, my life experiences as a black-man in America are different from White’s and other groups due to the perceptions people have concerning demographic categories such race and color. Our abilities and skill sets are developed through the experiences we accumulate over our lifetime and not necessarily a default of possessing identifiable physical traits.
Last month I had the distinct pleasure of providing diversity training to our Human Resource Advisors at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard base. I posed a question to them. I asked if they all had cell phones and if they did, could they tell me without looking, how many apps their phone contained. Everyone answered no, which didn’t surprise me since most people never take the time to fully understand and utilize their phones to their maximum potential. Some of those apps can make life much easier for us, saving time, money, and even lives if used properly. Each experience we have in our lives are like apps on a cell phone. Each has a specific purpose and function, but will only perform when we figure out how they operate and then use them properly. The key for leaders is to learn how to get to those apps and use them to accomplish their objectives and achieve mission success. Experiences are more important than demographics because they can be used to enhance performance and that’s what every organization needs.
By no means am I saying race, color, sex, etc., aren’t important because they make us the unique individuals we all happen to be. My point is when it comes to true workplace diversity, demographics aren’t the most important attribute, ability to perform well and skills are. In order for diversity to be applicable in the workplace, we must move beyond simply being diverse. Experience has shown me that organizations that rely solely on diverse workforces experience high rates of exclusion. This is because the concept of diversity hasn’t been properly defined for them, making it difficult to fully accept minorities and women into the organization.
Think of it this way – If you hired me as a black-male, I would hope that you would expect a high level of performance from me in spite of my color. If not, then I could show up each day and just stay “black.” This segues into one of the most important questions one of the Human Resource Advisors asked during the workshop; “How do we make Diversity operational?” It’s also one of the most commonly asked questions I’ve received throughout my seventeen years as a Diversity practitioner. The answer is twofold. First, diversity as a concept must be properly defined and second, it must be implemented correctly.
The Concept of Diversity, Making it Operational
The concept of diversity is not something that can be counted using metrics. Taking note of workforce composition, efforts to recruit people with diverse backgrounds, and the number of people who’ve received diversity training are measures which should be included in an Affirmative Action Plan or Equal Opportunity Report, not a report on diversity. Efforts like these help to support the concept, but don’t capture the essence of workplace diversity. As world renowned diversity expert Dr. Samuel Botances put it, “Counting heads, but not making heads count” is what we must avoid. For diversity to become relevant and applicable to the mission of the military and be useful in the corporate world we must first understand what it is.
Diversity as stated earlier is an active process, which requires what I’ve described as the “functional equation” (Representation + Inclusion + Performance = Diversity®). These three components MUST work together at all times in order to create the concept of workplace diversity and be used to accomplish goals, tasks, and missions. Remove ‘inclusion’ or ‘performance’ from the equation and you are left with a diverse organization. Being diverse is great if leaders want a force or workplace which “looks” like the surrounding population, but this only satisfies one piece of the equation, representation. Let me separate the components and explain and how they function to create diversity:
Representation – includes qualified members and employees from all walks of life with unique backgrounds and life experiences that can be used to accomplish the missions, goals, and tasks of an organization or business.
Inclusion – The act of engaging employees and members of the Armed Forces in the everyday operations of an organization, using both informal and formal methods. Some examples are, disseminating critical workplace-information, sharing ideas, acknowledging differences and incorporating them when needed for mission readiness and soliciting input from all members on issues that may affect the work environment.
Performance – Must be the overarching reason people are hired in spite of other factors. Inclusion is the key to gaining “optimal performance” which is the desired end state.
Diversity – An active process which incorporates the abilities, skill sets and capabilities of all of its members and employees by including them in every aspect of the organization, resulting in the desired performance necessary for mission readiness and business success. The synergy created by linking Representation + Inclusion + Performance is what creates diversity. Anything short of that leaves the organization with an eclectic group of people who may not work together effectively.
One advanatge the military has over for-profit organizations, is that when it comes to hiring, the military doesn’t need to look for special people with specialized skill sets to fit a particular job. Each branch of service takes the average person and makes them special through training and education. With this in mind, the focus must be on how to get the most out of the members of the team. The military spends thousands of dollars training individuals on how to perform their jobs. The return on that investment (ROI) is received by way of high productivity or in the macro sense, protecting U.S national security.
However all employment whether in corporate settings or membership in the military is voluntary. People have to want to join or work for a particular organization. Therefore, the art of persuasion and marketing strategies must be geared towards making those who shows interest in the organization or company feel welcomed to apply. This will ensure a diverse population of candidates and there won’t be a need to hire strictly for demographic representation. Once employees or members become part of the organization, fair, equitable, and supportive treatment will help to create loyalty and stimulate optimal performance. This should be the ultimate goal for incorporating diversity. If we adopt this way of thinking, diversity will become applicable in the workplace and leaders will be able to leverage the talents of all its members. This is what seperates the concept from being a workplace nicety to a workplace necessity.