4.02.2013

Diversity in the Workplace

When a typical someone thinks about diversity, they may immediately think about African-Americans, or Asian-Americans, or even gay Americans. But what about educational, work ethic, and experience backgrounds? These can be as diverse or homogeneous as any outwardly visible diversity characteristic--and just as important in the workplace.

I've been observing an interesting organizational phenomenon recently. Some large, popular companies, particularly IT-related ones, tend to attract young professionals with similar educational backgrounds (i.e., graduates from the same small pool of schools, similar or same educational program).

There is a certain prestige and affinity these cohesive groups of employees associate with their similar educational backgrounds and schools, creating what I foresee is a rather serious blockage to diversity and growth for companies.

If a company has a majority of employees with the same educational background and who came from the same school, set of schools, or even program of study, there is an obvious impact on hiring practices, workplace dynamics, and resource richness/value.

The positive aspects of having a homogeneous work force is that the company knows what to expect from their employees, and for the employees, there is a sense of belonging, camaraderie, and shared attitudes and philosophies. The negative is that there may be a tendency of doing things the same way, all the time. Folks have a stronger incentive to belong and do as everyone else does: it's the way they were taught at school, and the same way their colleagues/fellow alumni are doing it. There's not much incentive to think outside the box.

I imagine there is a strong clique mentality, an ego-build and prestige mentality. These tendencies can be highly alienating to the minority who are different: didn't graduate from those schools, study that particular program, or fit in as easily into this shared value and ethic system.

It's always a fine line that's being drawn between personal values and workplace dynamics. I have found that most companies are unable to cleanly divide one from the other. That's just how the cookie crumbles.

If employees all come from the same or a similar background, how does it affect a company? Companies exist to achieve goals and make a profit. I imagine that if a company's homogeneous employees are representative of the target audience, there is a good match between what the company offers and the demand by the market. If the employees are not representative of the target audience, then there may be an important gap/disconnect.

If there is an unspoken or subconscious trend of doing things in the socially approved "legacy" way, there's not much chance for the company to work towards or reach ground-breaking or disruptive achievement in the marketplace.

Worst of all, there's not much incentive for the employees themselves to grow and expand as professionals and as persons, since it's considered OK to fit in to the status quo and keep doing things a particular way.

I've been mulling over this type of phenomenon lately because there have been a number of vivid examples that I've observed and heard about in first-person accounts.

From an "outside" or even HR perspective, the homogenous workforce in a company cuts off potentially invaluable outside, diverse employees. HR is more likely to hire those who fit in with the existing culture rather than create a disruptor effect. Recommendations and references tend to lead to particular employees being hired, rather than skill sets being evaluated against existing gaps.

A homogeneous workforce affects culture and morale, it could become lemming-like with shared attitudes, philosophy, approaches, and culture. Learning curves/comfort zones (pro status quo) and achievements (I fit in! versus I created a new way of dong things!) all affect ROI (not much potential for product/service/revenue growth).

It really does pay to look outside one's own comfort zone when it comes to acquiring resources. Diversity is in companies' best interests. Be it physical, educational, or experience diversity, a variety of backgrounds and philosophies tend to create a more dynamic working environment, provide new perspectives to old problems, new solutions to product and design, and most-importantly, stretches other employees to grow.