©2006 Hannibal B. Johnson

Well known syndicated columnist and author, Richard Reeves, recently said this about diversity: “The big question [of our times] is diversity, the question of how very different people co-exist with each other as they come together in more complicated societies.” I concur in Mr. Reeves’ assessment. I would add only that this “big question of our times” has at least two dimensions: one moral, the other economic and pragmatic. Diversity, widely accepted as a moral imperative, is a business imperative as well.

The chief aim of a diversity initiative should be to create an institutional culture that values and respects each and every individual. That requires more than simply mixing persons with differences together like gumbo in a boiling pot. Absent vision and leadership, by-the-numbers diversity efforts may result in unsavory balkanization and conflict.

Ultimately, organizations that invest in, nurture, and value diversity stand to reap significant dividends. They often experience improved morale, diminished complaints, enhanced productivity, positive public relations, and heightened recruitment/retention of minorities.

Organizational cultures and climates differ. As such, the cookie-cutter approach to diversity often falls short of the mark. Customization is key. That said, we know something about what works generally. Sustainable diversity initiatives broadly define the concept, offer continuous learning opportunities, take a strategic approach, foster critical thinking and problem solving skills, and reward progress.

Diversity means more than race. Our diversity-the many ways in which we differ, one from another-includes: ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, ability status, class, and other characteristics that, at least, potentially, divide us. More importantly, diversity, properly defined, celebrates our differences, but emphasizes our fundamental commonalities.

In matters of diversity, domestic demographic shifts and globalization counsel against sloth. Indeed, prudent businesses have already moved from “if” to “how” and “when.”

Businesses that are serious about diversity approach it strategically-the same way they approach other mission critical aspects of their enterprises. They expect employees to be responsible-to be knowledgeable and to behave appropriately. They hold everyone accountable, from the lowest level employee to the most senior executive.

Diversity, at its essence, is about: (i) celebrating who we are and from whence we come, not just geographically, but culturally as well; (ii) celebrating the humanity and origins of others, including those who are different from ourselves; (iii) working together toward a unified vision; and, ultimately, a better organization; (iv) being on the lookout for those who would artificially separate and divide us; and (v) treating everyone fairly, and with dignity and respect.

When we are open and honest, tell our stories, and get in touch with and celebrate our distinct identities, we foster compassion and empathy. We realize that we stand on common ground, and are poised to work together in service of shared organizational goals.

We all need to be reminded that what we have in common is our shared humanity. Understanding and respecting that simple truth allows us the flexibility to move toward the exploration of differences with a degree of safety and trust that might otherwise be lacking. To get there, we need to become more self-aware, learn to listen, be empathetic, better understand the dynamics of communication, and be proactive. All the while, we should take great care to give others the benefit of the doubt. Fallible as we all are, mistakes and missteps will be made. Seek to understand. Offer to educate. Find the courage to forgive.

Honing these capacities requires putting ourselves in situations that may leave us feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable. It requires spending “quality time” with people who are somehow different. Creating social intimacy-establishing cross-cultural relationships-is the sine qua non of effective diversity leadership. For many of us, such relationships have to be cultivated. They do not occur absent our own affirmative action.

There are, of course, other things that we can do to enhance our diversity skills and to foster greater understanding of and appreciation for diversity generally. We can study the history of other groups. We can participate in dialogue with other groups on issues of importance. We can work with groups that support inclusion (e.g., locally, the Oklahoma Conference for Community and Justice, the YWCA, Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry, and the Community Service Council; nationally, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Urban League, the Anti-defamation League). We can speak out when we see oppression and discrimination. We can teach our children and grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, the importance of respecting all people. We can work toward an inclusive history curriculum in our public schools. We can challenge stereotypes and insensitivity in the workplace.

Increasingly, diversity affects the bottom line and should factor into a company’s strategic business initiatives. To be successful, though, leadership and management must understand the significance of diversity to both their personal advancement and the upward trajectory of the overall enterprise.

Diversity need not-indeed, should not-come at the expense of “meritocracy.” Rather, by understanding the history of the business in terms of diversity, committing to equality of opportunity, expanding the pool, being flexible, educating, supporting, mentoring, and nurturing, diversity stands to take merit to a whole new level.

Hannibal B. Johnson, a Harvard Law School graduate, is an author, attorney, college professor, and consultant. He specializes in diversity issues.