Do We Really Need Diversity in the Workplace?

This article originally appeared in The Consulting Masters.

Patrick Henry CEO

“Youth ages, immaturity is outgrown, ignorance can be educated, and drunkenness sobered, but stupid lasts forever.”

– Aristophanes

A lot has been written about diversity lately: diversity in the workforce; diversity on management teams; diversity on boards of directors.

Merriam-Webster defines diversity, as applied in this case, as the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization. I took a look at the list of antonyms for “diversity.” None capture what diversity programs are working to solve: racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the workplace. Diversity programs are trying to promote the benefits of having people from different races, sexes, and religious backgrounds involved with making decisions and providing leadership.

The United States federal government first mandated “diversity” with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This act made it “illegal for organizations to engage in employment practices that discriminate against employees on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age and disability.” In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive Order 11246 requiring all government contractors to take affirmative actions to overcome past patterns of exclusion and discrimination.

It is now 50 years later. So what’s the problem? Don’t we have an African-American president of the United States now? Isn’t discrimination, racism, sexism, and prejudice a thing of the past, especially in the workforce? Not by a long shot! Why is this? Prejudice and discrimination have been with us for thousands of years. Prejudice has been around as long as societies have been in existence and government mandates won’t really change that. I have traveled all over the United States and all over the world and found that racism is rampant, and, in many cases, it is even more prevalent—and even accepted—outside of the United States. So, can we really eliminate prejudice and discrimination? Unless we can cure ignorance and stupidity, the answer is no. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to implement diversity in the workforce? Absolutely not!

With that said, is diversity the most important factor for hiring an employee, a senior executive, or a member of a board of directors? I don’t think so. Is diversity helpful and critically important in all levels of a healthy organization? I’d say absolutely yes! So we have a bit of a conundrum.

It reminds me of the famous article published in The Wall Street Journal on July 15, 1996, Cypress CEO Blasts Sister Who Asked for Diverse Board. This article is popularly known in Silicon Valley as “the Fight Between T.J. and the Nun.” The history is that Sister Doris Gormley from the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, Our Lady of Angels Convent (Glen Riddle), sent a letter to the board of directors of Cypress Semiconductor requesting more diversity on the Cypress board. T.J. Rogers, the Cypress CEO sent a detailed response letter to her. T.J. is a brilliant technologist and operations expert that was on the board of directors of one of my former companies. Like many executives in the semiconductor industry, T.J. is very blunt and direct with his opinions. In T.J.’s response letter he says, “Thank you for your letter criticizing the lack of racial and gender diversity of Cypress’s Board of Directors. I received the same letter from you last year. I will reiterate the management arguments opposing your position. Then I will provide the philosophical basis behind our rejection of the operating principles espoused in your letter, which we believe to be not only unsound, but even immoral, by a definition of that term I will present.” Although I don’t agree with the term “immoral,” I think T.J. has a point that other, far more important factors exist for selecting a member of a board of directors besides a person’s race or sex.

What is really important in hiring an employee, a member of a management team, or a member of a board of directors? Forbes Magazine published an article on April 2, 2013 detailing the 15 Traits of the Ideal Employee. Interestingly, diversity is not on the list. I haven’t asked the author if he thinks diversity is important, but I suspect he does.

Some of the most important things I seek in hiring employees, senor executives, and members of a board of directors include:

  • Intelligence
  • Honesty and integrity
  • Good work ethic
  • Focus on results
  • Passion: a desire to win, and an aversion to losing
  • Good listening skills
  • Confidence, but not cockiness
  • Willingness to do the work crafted through fact-based decision making
  • Ability to rely on “gut” decisions
  • Ability to articulate, sell, and defend decisions
  • Ability to operate in a decision making environment despite uncertainty and ambiguity
  • Ability to both lead and follow
  • Knowledge of how to play on a team
  • Political savviness, though not political by nature
  • Specific domain knowledge and competency

So, diversity isn’t on my list either. I think diversity is important to organizations, but not because of affirmative action, or diversity for the sake of diversity. Given this, if we have two equally qualified candidates, and one creates diversity while still preserving a strong team dynamic, I would hire that candidate.

Why do I think diversity is valuable and complementary to the list above? Well, if everyone thinks the same, then you only need one person. Diversity creates an environment where differences of opinion and perspectives exist more frequently than on a homogeneous team. If you can create a diverse workforce, then you can improve the chances of winning. That is the case with teams at all levels in the organization—including management teams and boards of directors. Why is that? Winning teams are good at anticipating changes in the environment and competition, and they have the ability to adjust quickly to those changes. If a team is diverse, it will see things from more angles, and this improves a team’s ability to recognize a broader set of obstacles and challenges. In many cases, a diverse team anticipates potential changes beforehand, allowing the organization to avoid pitfalls, and more easily navigate around obstacles. This only works with strong leadership, but diversity helps a lot.

The primary challenge of having diverse teams is staying receptive to others’ ideas while continuing to operate as a high performing team. Another important challenge is the speed of decision making. Therefore, strong leadership is even more important on diverse teams.

In summary, I’d say diversity for diversity sake is stupid. Racism and sexism are even more stupid. Both are the result of ignorance and sad to say, inherent parts of society. The best way to approach any hiring situation is to find the most qualified candidates and make diversity a key part of the selection process. If I find two equally qualified candidates and one adds more diversity to the team, I will hire that person. It is much easier said than done since candidates are typically not “equally qualified,” but it is a worthwhile quest.

What do you think? Please share your successes, challenges, thoughts, and experience about hiring the right people and implementing diversity programs!

This is Patrick Henry with The Real Deal…What Matters.

Additional resources:

Diversity in the Workplace: Benefits, Challenges and Solutions by Josh Greenberg

Diversity in the Workplace: Benefits, Challenges, and the Required Managerial Tools by Kelli A. Green, Mayra López, Allen Wysocki, and Karl Kepner

The Myriad Benefits of Diversity in the Workplace by Kim Abreu

Business Advantages of Diversity in the Workplace by EthnoConnect

Diversity in the Workplace by Judith Lindenberger

Advantages and Disadvantages of Diversity in Workplace by David Ingram, Demand Media

How to Increase Workplace Diversity from Lessons in Leadership from The Wall Street Journal

Patrick Henry
Written by

Patrick Henry, CEO of QuestFusion, former CEO of Entropic Communications, entrepreneur, executive, father, and freelance blogger living the luxury and active lifestyle in San Diego.