Real Diversity in the Workplace

and Why Most Organizations Hate It 

Growing up in a Jewish home, I never really understood what it was like to know the disappointment a child feels when they finally learn there is no Santa. That was until recently. After 11 years of having my own consulting practice, I decided a little while ago to join a large and fast growing human resource consulting practice. A friend who worked there told me it was a good place to work and I went through four months of interviews and psychological assessments. I had read the books that they had written and were familiar with their good reputation for teaching leadership and best employment practices to many organizations. They were a very high-end consulting firm that charged top dollar and seemed to have a good reputation. I was going to be working with people who would understand and value what made me different. I was going to learn how these great thinkers were able to apply what they taught to create what should be the perfect workplace, which I was going to be joining.

Boy, was I wrong! No Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.

My ‘on-boarding’ and ‘welcome to the company’ consisted of my manager greeting me on the first day with ‘There is your desk. I know today is going to be a write-off. I’ve gotta go.’ My next opportunity to sit down with her one-on-one was a month later, when she blasted me for ‘not fitting in’ and then fired me a week later because ‘I didn’t have the ‘X’ factor.’ What is the ‘X’ factor? It is some nebulous, non-measurable intangible that I seemed to be inoculated against. “You just don’t fit in here.” I was told. “You are too different.” I was terminated even though I had to finish my only client assignment through them because the client liked my work. Now I really understand why people don’t like consultants.

It was at that moment that I was let go for not having the ‘X’ factor that I truly understood what diversity really meant and why so few organizations understand and promote it.

Superficial Diversity

Ask any organization about diversity and they will show you these wonderful, colorful pie charts (boy, do organizations love colorful pie charts) and they will tell you how many people are in various age ranges, of different nationalities, backgrounds, colors, religions, sexes and whatever other breakdown you want. ‘Hey, look how diverse our organization is.’ they proudly proclaim. They even hire a high priced consultant like my former manager who have Ph.Ds and will share with them some insight gleamed by an academic doing research and tell them how to create a ‘diverse’ workforce and how important that is to doing business. What they neglect to tell anybody, or even realize themselves, is that this is not real diversity. Real diversity is not measured by skin color, religion, age, sex or a number of other superficial benchmarks. Although having a different background may help people to think differently, it does not necessarily mean that people do differ. For instance, there is less diversity between George Bush and Condi Rice or between Whoopi Goldberg and John Kerry than there is between my older brother and myself.

There was a scene in the remake of the movie The Stepford Wives where the gay character is initiated into the ‘Men’s Club’ and they tell him about how they have transformed their wives. “We are open minded about lifestyle choices.” says the character Mike. “We don’t care about your partner. We can make him into a Stepford wife.” It did not matter if you were gay or straight, as long you thought like everybody else. It is the same with many organizations. We live in a global society. There are not the glass ceilings and old boys clubs like there were even fifteen years ago. There are laws which are in place to ensure that employment is not based on differences of gender, nationality, etc. Stepford Connecticut could accept gay and black people, it seemed, as long as they conformed their thinking to the groupthink. Like the consulting firm, all differences were accepted as long as you thought and acted just like everybody else. In other words, all new ideas are welcome as long as they are just like your manager’s!

A Definition of Real Diversity

Real diversity is defined as people thinking differently. Real diversity makes sense because an organization that has everybody becoming a ‘X’ factor means that the conclusions and ideas they develop will all be uniform. They will be, by definition, a step behind the cutting edge. Cutting edge thinking means challenging the norm and thinking just like everybody else is the norm. I know a very successful businessperson who told me to always hire your enemies. “They will tell you what you need know what your friends may be afraid to say.” he told me. Yet, organizations work very hard to find people who ‘fit’ in the culture. Valuing corporate experience over entrepreneurship means that the organization really wants people who know how to keep their heads low – people who won’t rock the boat. The idea is to keep your head low, do not be a threat to your boss’ ego, and you will be okay. After all, everybody loves the janitor!

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