Diversity - Law Firms Increasing Your Bottom Line By Promoting Diversity

Monday, March 1, 2004 - 00:00

Claudia Cohen and Susan Gross Sholinsky
Epstein Becker & Green, PC

In an ideal world, every person is treated equally when it comes to getting a job, advancing in his or her career and being treated fairly in the workplace. Unfortunately, despite the globalization of the U.S. marketplace, this is not always the case. Discrimination still exists in hiring, firing and promotions; and the diversity of the workforce regrettably can cause hostility in the workplace when individuals do not appreciate and respect the differences among themselves and their co-workers.

Businesses that promote diversity in today's global marketplace are better able to attract and retain the best talent. The labor pool has never been as diverse as it is today. Employing a diverse workforce allows a company to utilize the potential within the job market to its fullest and contributes to overall economic growth and prosperity. Differences among co-workers should not divide a workplace. Rather, differences among co-workers should be used to foster creativity and innovation, thereby driving profitability and business success. With this in mind, this article will explore what a company can do to foster diversity in the workplace.

Diversity - What Is It?

Traditionally, diversity was thought to refer to an assortment of races, ethnicities, genders, ages, disabilities and perhaps sexual orientations. A definition of diversity, however, should not be constrained by traditional categories such as these. Such a definition should also include categories such as religion, educational level, life experience, geographic location, socio-economic background, marital status and work experience. Indeed, each person employed by a company possesses unique qualities that encompass many factors.

How To Diversify Your Workforce

The first step in diversifying a workplace generally is to define the organization's strategies or initiatives for doing so. Workplace diversity should be viewed as a means to attaining organizational objectives and not as an end itself. When activities undertaken in developing a workplace diversity strategy are intertwined with corporate and business strategies, it often facilitates the success of the diversity initiative. Once a company has determined the purpose and expectations of a diversity initiative, it can plan the initiative.

Ideally, any diversity initiative should achieve some, if not all, of the following:

• Maximizing workplace satisfaction for all employees;

• Retaining a world class workforce; and

• Maintaining an environment that fosters learning and understanding.

With this in mind, the following strategic steps are critical to the implementation of a successful diversity strategy.

Get Executive Commitment. It is fundamental to the success of any diversity initiative that senior management, including the CEO, visibly support (including financially) and promote the diversity initiative. Diversity should be infused into all organizational processes, ensuring that it is integrated into the core values of the company.

Visible executive commitment to the diversity initiative can take different forms:

• Town hall meetings led by senior management;

• Creating an Office of Diversity, with the Head of such office reporting directly to senior management; or

• Creating a Diversity Mission Statement that is authored by the CEO and disseminated to all employees.

Assess the Climate and Issues at the Company. To assess the organization's current level of diversity generally requires analyzing at least the following:

• the corporation's corporate/business objectives;

• external factors (legal and governmental) and trends that may impact the company's diversity strategy (such as composition of the labor pool, projected future job openings and needs);

• prior diversity performance;

• existing human resources policies and practices to see if they present barriers for recruitment, selection, training, remuneration and the like;

• baseline statistical data about the workforce; and

• policies, practices or factors that stand in the way of developing or managing a diverse workforce.

This analysis, performed prior to determining which diversity initiatives will be undertaken, will ensure that the workplace diversity initiatives are responsive to the real needs of the company, its managers and its staff. Focus groups or questionnaires are sometimes used to assess these factors, however, they should be used only after consulting with legal counsel.

Link Diversity to Business Strategic Plans. Ideally, a diversity initiative should focus on creating measurable ways diversity can support the strategic direction, goals and objectives of the organization.

Strategic-level, long-range planning for diversity is a recent development. Previously, diversity was not seen as an integral part of strategic planning - initiatives were often poorly conceptualized, lacked specificity and were not linked to strategic organizational plans. Today, companies realize that to be effective and long lasting, successful diversity planning must be aligned with and provide support for strategic business objectives and operational decisions.

Communicate the Company's Diversity Mission/Statement to All Employees. Communication is critical to the success of an organization's diversity initiative, and should not occur only at the beginning of a diversity initiative, but throughout the entire process. A company should be thorough and timely in reporting back to senior management and to staff with any results and/or progress so that employees are aware of the initiative's benefits and the company's progress. Follow-through also deters cynicism.

Ensure that All Employees Receive Diversity Training. All employees - new hires, supervisors and non-supervisors - should receive diversity training. Offer the training frequently and ensure all new employees attend shortly after they commence employment. Training will (a) increase awareness and understanding of workplace diversity and (b) develop concrete skills among staff that will foster enhanced productivity and communications among all employees.

Because it is very difficult to change employees' attitudes, the focus of diversity training is on changing behaviors. In order to implement effective training, companies may wish to (a) design and implements the training itself; (b) hire an independent diversity training consultant to provide training to staff and management; (c) use a "train-the-trainer" approach to develop and implement diversity training; and/or (d) integrate diversity training into existing training modules (i.e., discrimination and harassment training).

Establish a Diversity Council. A diversity council, usually composed of a cross-section of the organization at varying levels, spearheads the initiative. Frequently, this group helps to analyze relevant diversity data and makes recommendations to senior management. So that an organization's diversity initiative is taken seriously by all employees, some members of the council should be from senior management.

Reward Managers for Their Ability to Recruit, Manage and Motivate a Diverse Workforce. A key element of the success of a diversity initiative is accountability, which is achieved by making the appropriate leaders responsible for diversity by linking performance evaluation efforts and compensation with successful implementation and progress of the diversity initiatives.

Assess Diversity Efforts on a Regular and Consistent Basis. Another key element of a successful diversity initiative is evaluating the results of the initiative and measuring progress. The frequency of assessment may vary among organizations, but the need for such assessment is essential. Thus, any diversity strategy must contain pre-determined, well-defined measures that assess effectiveness and evaluate outcomes to see whether they support organizational objectives and targets. Examples of such straightforward and unambiguous measures include:

• Employee attrition rates;

• Workforce satisfaction;

• External awards and recognition for diversity efforts; and

• Workplace climate satisfaction - morale.

An organization should coordinate with legal counsel whenever it conducts a self-assessment of this nature so that proper documentation occurs, and no unnecessary legal risks are taken.

Fostering Diversity In The Workplace

Developing and implementing a diversity strategy is only the beginning. An organization must work hard to create a respectful work environment, free from harassment and discrimination, where all employees feel valued and have an opportunity to advance.

Create a Respectful Work Environment. Every employee comes to the workplace with a unique life experience and personality, which affects how he or she interacts with others. With so many differences among employees, some amount of interpersonal discomfort, tension and conflict is inevitable. It is important not to ignore our differences, but to create an environment in which each person feels valued. As such, employees should be encouraged to acknowledge differences and to treat each other with dignity.

Create a Harassment and Discrimination Free Environment. In order to create an environment of inclusion, an organization must espouse equal opportunity. One of the most destructive influences on an organization's diversity efforts is harassment. The employer may experience a loss of productivity, damage to its reputation, decreased employee morale, time and cost of investigating and resolving complaints, and legal fees from defending employment actions. The employee-victim may suffer diminished work performance, physical and mental health problems, embarrassment, and difficulties of pursuing legal action. The employee-harasser may experience damage to reputation and personal life, diminished work performance, job loss, and personal legal liability.

To avoid these potentially devastating effects, an organization should strive to create an environment in which harassment and discrimination are not tolerated. An organization's non-discrimination and non-harassment message should not be limited to scheduled training programs. Management should lead by example, and coach supervisors and lower managers to do the same. Employees should be encouraged to come forward with complaints of inappropriate conduct. And, an organization should respond promptly and effectively when discrimination or harassment occurs.

Promote Participation in External Diversity Organizations. Encourage and support employee involvement with community organizations and activities that provide opportunities for employees to work together for a common cause, i.e., Breast Cancer Walk. Engaging in this kind of group activity enhances teambuilding efforts across corporate and cultural divides.

Take Steps to Recruit and Retain Diverse Employees. Companies should strive to re-define the way it locates potential candidates. For example, organizations may choose to recruit at predominately minority-attended colleges and universities (i.e., Howard University); encourage minorities, women and people with disabilities in the organization to assist in providing names of possible recruits; and develop written recruitment materials that visually reflect the diversity the organization wishes to attain.

Another way to achieve diversity is to focus on retention. Unless an organization creates a climate that welcomes its new diverse workforce, it will experience turnover. Barriers to promotion should be eliminated, and position openings and development opportunities should be posted organization-wide to all employees.

The image a company conveys to the public affects its recruitment results. If a company is seen as one that offers real opportunities to diverse employees, where all employees are treated with respect and where senior management is comprised of a mix of people, the company will likely find diverse applicants coming to it.

Conclusion

A diverse workforce generally leads to happy employees, satisfied clients, and less discrimination, which, in turn, transforms an organization into a more productive company. By following the steps set forth above, a company can utilize the value of a diverse workforce to add to the bottom line.

Claudia M. Cohen is a Member and Susan Gross Sholinsky is an Associate in the New York Office of Epstein Becker & Green, PC. Questions about this article can be addressed to Ms. Cohen at ccohen@ebglaw.com. This document has been provided for informational purposes only and is not intended and should not be construed to constitute legal advice. Please consult your attorneys in connection with any fact-specific situation under federal law and the applicable state or local laws that may impose additional obligations on you and your company. © Epstein Becker & Green, PC 2004.