Diversity Plus

The age of diversity is far from over, but even some of its evangelists note that during the Great Recession, it took a back seat to survival. Long frustrated in its attempts to move beyond incremental progress in meeting diversity goals, corporate America, and soon companies of all sizes, will not only view "inclusion" as a way to drive business performance in a way diversity never could, but as a more effective way to finally make workforce diversity reflect the growing diversity of American society. Companies like JP Morgan Chase, Chevron, and Medtronics have begun to implement inclusion as a business strategy.

They are doing it to promote employee engagement, retention, and productivity, according to Shirley Engelmeier, CEO, and Bill Wells, managing director, of the Minneapolis-based InclusionINC, one of several business consultants that have emerged to help firms implement inclusion as a business strategy.

Wells, a former chief diversity officer for a Fortune 500 company and chairman of the board for the National Black MBA Association, noted the distinction between a paradigm shift and transition, and the move toward inclusion is an example of the latter. Corporate America does not move quickly, and such a cultural change is a multi-year proposition, but Wells has little doubt that the value of inclusion to things like innovation, business performance, and retention will become evident.

"Has all of corporate America, all of the Fortune 500, made the shift immediately?" he asked. "No. Are they in transition? Yes. Is the conversation moving specifically from diversity to more about inclusion and engagement? Absolutely."

Engelmeier said diversity has been around for a long time, but its value was openly questioned at the onset of the Great Recession. "Even though it was intended to be thought of more broadly, the diversity side centered around race and gender and representation metrics," she noted. "The issue with that is that it never got the traction that it needed to help drive business results, and so what we saw the last few years was that when the economy changes, a lot of work in the arena of diversity got thrown under the bus because people didn't think it was mission critical."

The distinction between diversity and inclusion is not difficult to make, and the barriers to inclusion aren't especially difficult to overcome.

Citing focus group intelligence, Engelmeier said the number one response people gave about when they feel the most included was when they were asked their opinion about things related to their job. "I know the job best," was a common assertion of these focus group members. "That sounds like a no-brainer," Engelmeier said, before hastening to add that it doesn't happen frequently enough.

Not yet, at least. Paying more attention to the people who perform the work is a quality-control dynamic that organizations can use to craft inclusionary programs, but it takes some quality of effort beyond changing a title from VP in charge of diversity to VP in charge of diversity and inclusion. The duties of an inclusion officer, or an inclusion office, are more comprehensive, and involve developing strategies to get the most out of each worker. It's just one more way to be a company that people want to work for.

"Diversity describes differences among people and being open to a variety of ideas and perspectives," Engelmeier said. "Inclusion is ensuring that everyone is allowed to bring their talents to the workplace to maximize business success."

Nearly 50 years ago, the new term "affirmative action" ushered in a period of diversity programs and Equal Employment Opportunity compliance. While diversity is still an important goal, and an elusive one at that, it's not enough to help companies gain traction as a business driver. Expect more organizations to view it as a means to an inclusive end.

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