More and more, organizations are realizing that in order to be successful and recruit and retain the best employees, they must value the diversity of their employees and the clients they serve.

Whether you are a non-profit or a private corporation, learning to recognize and utilize differences can benefit your organization.

For most businesses this does not happen automatically, but through a process that involves personal and professional change.

Organizations need to define what diversity means to

For most organizations it involves creating an inclusive organization where the differences of all people are respected, valued and utilized towards achieving a common goal. Differences people bring to the work environment include race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, geographic background, education, economic background and thinking and communication styles.

Organizations must have clarity about the specific
benefits of diversity to their success

It’s important that employees are representative of their client base so they can understand their needs and know how to serve them. It does not mean that people of one culture, gender, age, etc, only work with those respective populations. It means that the organization as a whole is better able to relate to a larger population. This creates better working relationships, and helps avoid miscommunication based on cultural differences and ignorance about other groups. It saves time and money and having to do things over. For Lucy Shelby at RCAC in Portland, having a well rounded understanding about the cultures of her clients can help build stronger relationships and give more loans to communities for building new affordable housing. She says, “I want to understand how people think and feel before we talk about filling housing needs or building leadership capacity.

Organizations need to assess how they are presently doing
in terms of recruitment and retention and promotion

Assess the cultural makeup of your clients and your employees. Do you have employees that reflect your client base? Where are the gaps that need to be filled? It’s important to develop an assessment to get this information. A combination of written surveys, focus groups and interviews will provide that. You’ll find out what your employees are thinking and what issues you may not be aware of. Employees and managers together can develop ideas to make an organization more effective. Victoire Chochezi of RCAC in Sacramento, CA talks about the importance of diversity in thinking styles and communication. She states, “It’s good to do assessments. Like minds tend to gravitate toward like minds and not work as much with other people who do not think like them. We always need to branch out and work with people who are from different backgrounds and have different working and thinking styles.”

After you do an assessment develop a plan to address issues and create a plan to support diversity. Are you lacking diversity at the employee level, management, or board of directors? Some organizations have been able to recruit diverse employees but their executive leadership is exactly alike in terms of race, age gender, geographic background or education. If you always recruit from the same sources you will always get the same people. Talk to other companies that have successfully recruited and maintained a diverse workforce. Find out how they get their candidates and what they have done to create a more inclusive environment. According to Chochezi, “when people feel included, they are more likely to give appropriate input. They still feel encouraged even if their ideas are not accepted each time.”

Provide appropriate training
Even if you are diverse, in terms of demographics, it’s necessary to train people to understand each other and the communities you serve. Just having people who are different from each other is not enough. A good training program helps people work better together and utilize each other’s strengths. Depending on the size of your organization you might want to form a diversity council to champion your diversity initiative, deal with issues and build a stronger team.

Learn from other organizations but be aware of what your
group can do specifically to be more inclusive.

Educate and train people to be aware of their conscious and unconscious biases and assumptions that impede working together. Even things like social events can make a difference in your organization. Issues come up during winter holidays when people from different cultures have celebrations. Its important to include all people and if your celebrations are geared towards Christmas or any other one group it can create discomfort for others. While some people won’t say anything they just won’t show up or if they do it can create resentment or a feeling that some people are more valued than others.

Examine all systems and processes and change those impede inclusion.

Finally, senior management needs to drive the change or it will be seen as one more good idea that never worked.

Simma Lieberman works with people and organizations to create environments where people can do their best work. She specializes in diversity, gender communications, life-work balance and stress, and acquiring and retaining new customers.