Dear Employer: 3 Things You Need to Understand about Ethnic Diversity

James Edward Murray

Founder at DSRUPTISM | MBA Candidate at Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University



I didn’t see color until I cannon balled into a pool and my Caucasian friend announced sarcastically, “I didn’t know black people could swim!” I was 10.

In this moment, things changed for me; color became overtly present. I never saw color because my friendships were based on mutual interest rather than race. But for the first time, I felt different. I felt how history had created an environment in which inclusion was cultivated, not assured.

19 years later, my color is the same; the difference is that I’ve become proud to be a black man rather than resenting my ethnicity in moments of exclusion.

Since college I’ve worked in finance, media, and technology, industries dominated by white males. In considering how being a minority influenced my experience, I realized there are some fundamental things employers and entrepreneurs need to understand to create more diverse and inclusive work environments. Here are a few points to consider:

Empathy must be facilitated

They say ignorance is bliss, and I agree.

Being in the majority comes with a license – a license to live in a bubble of comfort, ignorant to the inequities that exist among the minority.

For example, I never considered the marginalization of women in tech roles until a female coworker and engineer engaged me on the topic. Sadly, I had been blind to the problem because I had never needed to think about the problem. What I learned consequently is that empathy is achieved through dialogue, not osmosis.

The same principle applies to ethnic inclusion. A culture of belonging requires empathy toward the differences of underrepresented employees. The best companies promote these differences, communicate the advantages of inclusion, and create opportunities for employees to be themselves, rather than assuming it will happen by default. 

Diversity and inclusion are not mutually exclusive

Companies are making real investments to hire a more diverse workforce. For example, Google is spending $150 million on diversity initiatives in 2015 and Intel $300 million over the next three years. Budgets are a good start, but the work can’t stop here.

Diversity without inclusion is like da Vinci without a paintbrush, an abundance of potential lacking the necessary tools to thrive. In other words, hiring a diverse workforce doesn’t mean “mission accomplished.” Before declaring victory, leaders must institutionalize programs that consistently help diverse employees stay, advance, and connect to the culture.

The best leaders understand the importance of a holistic strategy that includes both hiring and execution of inclusion efforts throughout the organization.

Real change comes from the bottom

A top-down approach to diversity and inclusion needs to be accompanied by a scalable bottom-up approach. Change comes from the bottom, when employees most exposed to company culture are invested in the programs intended to drive change.

For example, when I worked in finance, the CFO of my firm proposed a program to attract talent from black colleges. The mandate came from the top, but the program was designed and operationalized by a team of mid-level employees on which I served. As a result, we felt like owners invested in the program’s success, rather than employees complying with the CFO’s orders (oh, and the initiative proved successful, with the company hiring its largest number of diverse employees ever!).

There’s a difference between change born out of pressure and change born out of aspiration. I’ve found that leaders who aspire to a more diverse and inclusive workplace understand the importance of uniting all levels of the organization to transform their company cultures.
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