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Diversity Heads For Next Level

April 22, 2001, Carol Kleiman's column in the Chicago Tribune

For more than three decades, "diversity" has been a buzzword in Corporate America.

"Diversity" first was used to underscore the importance of having a workforce not solely made up of white men. It also described the process of incorporating the talents of a variety of people into the corporate culture.

What it added up to is that diversity underscored the importance of hiring all qualified job applicants, regardless of race, gender, ethnic background, age or religion.

The original goal of diversity was to create a "melting pot" of employees, which was a good place to begin. But very quickly that notion changed when managers realized workers were proud of their heritages and wouldn't "blend" them or become invisible.

The current approach to diversity moves on from a melting pot to looking at a multicultural workforce as a strong tree with many different yet equally important branches.

Having a diverse workforce, particularly in a global economy, still is a necessity for any business that wants to remain competitive. But my concern is that Corporate America no longer pays much attention to diversity, despite the fact that minorities make up 25 percent of the U.S. population. In particular, the Hispanic population is soaring.

Yet diversity advocates reassure me that it still is a corporate employment value--but one that continues to change and to be redefined.

"Organizations still are very concerned about diversity because it will make them more profitable, more effective and more productive," said Bea Young, founder and managing director of The Kaleidoscope Group, an international diversity and management consulting firm based in Chicago. "The ultimate end result of diversity is getting better input--you can't keep talking to everyone who looks alike and expect to get diverse opinions."

Proof of the staying power of diversity is that Young, who has been a consultant for 30 years and does diversity training, says her clientele has tripled since she started Kaleidoscope in 1993 with Doug Harris. "Diversity today is seen as a business imperative," said Young, who has a master's degree in education and social systems. "It's not going away."

"Diversity certainly isn't dead," agrees Edith Updike, editor-in-chief of Diversity Monitor, a new newsletter published in New York that focuses on managing a diverse workforce. "In fact, more and more people are starting to see diversity as a bottom line business and management issue."

Updike, however, says that "the biggest remaining problem--the last portion of the goal is the hardest to reach--is that even though there are women and minorities at lower levels, they're not percolating to the top. As a result, training programs are shifting from being based solely on legal issues to a broader consideration of how you treat your workers and get the most out of your workforce."

R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., founder in 1984 of the American Institute for Managing Diversity and president of R. Thomas Consulting and Training in Atlanta, is known as the guru of diversity. Thomas, who has a doctorate in organizational behavior, is the author of "Building a House for Diversity (Amacom, $27.95). He defines diversity as "any collective mixture characterized by differences and similarities."

Always at the forefront of change, Thomas says diversity is in flux. "We have a workforce that's becoming increasing diverse but not necessarily representation of a variety of viewpoints," he said. "If we hire people from different backgrounds who look at business matters the same way, that may be diversity-- but it's not representation."

And true representation, says Thomas, is the next level diversity must go to.

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Carol Kleiman's column also appears in Tuesday's Business section. Watch her Career Coach segments Sunday and Tuesday mornings on CLTV. Send e-mail to ckleiman@tribune.com.


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