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In Defense of Corporate Diversity Programs

Companies say programs that honor different minority groups pay off.

February 8, 2013

The exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry was called "Race: Are We So Different?" Invited by several sponsors, including Portland State University, hundreds of community members of diverse races recently viewed the exhibit and then came together for a discussion.

Although the message of the exhibit was that biologically we are all pretty much the same, most of the people who stood and shared their thoughts introduced a different theme. Simply put, the consensus of the group was: "I want to be me." Nobody, from African-Americans to Arab-Americans, wanted simply to blend in with others.

"I am not willing to give up my culture, which is thousands of years old," a man from Iraq said.

"We don't know enough about each other," a Latina added. "Lack of knowledge is a hindrance."

"We're all supposed to climb into our white man's suit and act like a white man," said an African-American woman. "We need to be ourselves culturally."

Jilma Meneses, chief diversity officer at Portland State University, moderated the discussion. She said the comments mirrored current trends in the workplace, where people of color are expecting not just to be stirred into the melting pot, but to be acknowledged and even honored for their cultural differences.

"That's so important for retention at any workplace," Meneses said. "That's one of my priorities to honor and celebrate our employees of all backgrounds."

The recent presidential election and voter demographics showed how many different ingredients there are in the American melting pot. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people of color make up 36 percent of the labor force. By 2050, the bureau predicts that there will be no racial or ethnic majority in the United States.

In part to address demographic shifts, workforce diversity programs began appearing in corporations in the 1980s. But they have received mixed reviews over the years. A 2007 study by Harvard University sociology professor Frank Dobbin concluded that most of the 708 diversity programs he examined had failed, and in many cases had created a diversity backlash. Poorly managed programs had exacerbated an already existing communication and cultural divide in some organizations.

Concerns also have been raised about disconnects between diversity programs and improvements in minority representation. William Powell, executive director of The Leadership Advisor consulting firm, wrote in a July 2011 blog post: "What ruffles my feathers is how diversity has devolved into this tickbox that organizations use to show they are 'progressive.' "

But many organizations are making a real effort to acknowledge and even honor individual workers' heritage and cultural backgrounds and are seeing results in higher productivity and employee engagement. At Loews Coronado Bay, a high-end resort hotel in San Diego, employees are treated with as much respect as the guests, says Barbara Vale, director of human resources. To that end, assuring the comfort of employees, who are predominantly Asian, Filipino and Latino, is paramount. Cafeteria meals are not only free, but are a virtual smorgasbord, reflecting the tastes of each cultural group. "It's about making them feel comfortable and embracing where they're from," Vale says.

Vale says she also acquaints herself with important holidays and celebrations from each culture and adds them to her calendar. On the Mexican Mother's Day, for example, every Latina mom gets a rose.

Debbie Stogel of the Anti-Defamation League, a century-old organization that works to overcome anti-Semitism and bigotry, says such gestures are a good start. "I think it's a great idea, but I think there does need to be more. I think there needs to be education and learning about other people's culture and background."

From her Los Angeles office, Stogel directs the ADL's national A Workplace of Difference program, which leads workplace anti-bias and diversity trainings. "What we do is put folks through interactive activities that allow them to experience how to value each other's differences."

"I think there needs to be education and learning about other people's culture and background," Stogel says. And that includes everyone.

"We don't in any way, shape or form take white males for granted," she says. "They do have a culture and a history and a heritage, and that is something to be appreciated."

Susan G. Hauser is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.