Changing the Government’s Use of Diversity

 -  12/13/11

An executive order by President Obama directs all government agencies to articulate a diversity plan. The intention is to move beyond representation to strategic leveraging of diversity.

In August, President Obama issued an executive order requiring all government agencies to have a plan for diversity and inclusion within 120 days. All agencies should now be in the early stages of implementation.

When the order was issued, some critics said there was no need for such an order because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is charged with monitoring diversity and inclusion in the government. This response is indicative of the widespread misunderstanding between diverse groups’ representation in the workforce and leveraging diversity to improve employee engagement and business outcomes.

In issuing the order, Obama recognized that focusing quantitatively on the number of diverse individuals in the federal workforce is just one part of the issue. The order, in part, reads:

“Our nation derives strength from the diversity of its population and from its commitment to equal opportunity for all. We are at our best when we draw on the talents of all parts of our society, and our greatest accomplishments are achieved when diverse perspectives are brought to bear to overcome our greatest challenges.”

While diverse representation is important, focusing solely on it can lead to high attrition rates for employees who do not fit the culture. Creating a culture of inclusion — where the goal is to create an environment that works for everyone — leads to higher levels of employee engagement and productivity.

Diversity practitioners are quick to point out that changing organizational culture is a journey, one that takes persistent, ongoing effort. Change efforts of this magnitude can take three to 10 years because organizational cultures can be entrenched and slow to change.

Tyronne Stoudemire, global diversity and inclusion leader for Aon Hewitt, said many organizations still look at diversity and inclusion as a problem to be solved. They don’t position it as a business strategic driver. They set up mentoring programs and affinity groups sans business connection. Inclusion will only be sustained when it is positioned as a set of values that create value for the organization.

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