The Reality of Diversity in the Workplace

My experience with diversity in the workplace

My views of diversity are various and ever-changing—shaped by my experiences as a black woman, the companies I’ve worked for, the many years I served in the United States Army, as well as the organizations that I support with my time and efforts to empower marginalized citizens. Most recently, I found myself questioning if diversity really exists. What is the difference between diversity and tokenism? Is it just a hot issue or buzzword? Are companies only creating positions of diversity to check a box?

The racial tensions in the US have surfaced some of the issues brewing for years. Companies don’t want to be perceived as being insensitive to the racial tensions, protests, and inadequate minority representation in their employee base.

My current view of diversity means that a company or organization has the pulse and understanding of what employees need to function effectively—including what they need to see and interact with in order to feel safe in their own space. This includes knowing that decisions that impact one’s work should be made with a vantage point from all sides. It has been my experience that the higher up the org chart, the fewer people of color you see in decision-making roles.

Perspectives on diversity in the workplace

During my conversations with my family, friends, coworkers and mentors past and present, I have found a multitude of very interesting perspectives. These people come from various employment sectors, races, ages, demographics, and economic status. The one common denominator I found was the old adage of, “It’s not what you know but who you know.” That, and the “Good Ol’ Boy” network is alive and well.

Some people have been raised since they were children to not embrace individuals who are considered “different”—and that perspective can be hard to change. It may be also extremely difficult to ensure their biases don’t get in the way of certain people advancing, being respected and getting access to projects and/or opportunities within the organization. I’m not saying this is intentional; it may be so ingrained that individuals don’t realize they are committing this act.

One interesting conversation I had with a source stated that a previous employer was filling a role in a specialized department. You had to have written and verbal skills, as well as advanced experience with utilities, property rights, the law and safe practices, and more. There were 25 individuals in this department and of those 25, two were college-educated Hispanics, three were college-educated African-Americans, and one was a college-educated female. The head of department was a college-educated white male—and the other 18 were white educated males with no post-high school education. The woman and minorities had to get advanced education to just qualify for what white males are granted out of high school.

People of color must be smarter, work harder and never get angry, although there is tremendous cause at times. It is a game of chess every day. Hiring the best candidates for the position should always be the preferred method.

Perhaps all of this is also why a now-infamous quote from a Fortune 500 executive (whom will remain nameless) said that diversity in corporate America is fleeting and rare at the executive level—especially in the C-suite. More disturbing was that the same executive had trouble reaching diversity goals because they felt there was not enough qualified minority talent—proof positive that a lot of work still needs to be done in the fight for equality.

Understanding what changes are required

What is most important is that companies continue to ensure all voices are heard and considered. Companies should be motivated to have a diverse workforce with people from all racial backgrounds—a proven fact that diverse teams build better businesses. Most companies are global, meaning their customers reside all over the world. The companies that are in strong market positions truly understand what changes are required based on their customers’ feedback, and diverse thoughts are not excluded.

Diversity can be the engine for creativity, innovation, and progress—but only if everyone is allowed a seat at the table, and in an environment of trust and empowerment. I daresay, it’s hard at times being the only black woman in a meeting or in a department. That said, many African-Americans are sitting on the sidelines, frustrated that their employer is suddenly trying to implement change related to hiring or retention practices.

In the end, it is my hope that companies commit to long-term improvements and address diversity gaps head-on, as opposed to simply jumping on a bandwagon to prevent public backlash.