Lack of workplace diversity saps productivity in multiple ways

Beth Olivares, BridgeTower Media Newswires

I am a white woman who grew up in a variety of poor and working class multicultural communities, and whose family, in several iterations, has been interracial (e.g., black stepfather, black/Puerto Rican step-siblings; Cuban ex-husband; Latinx children).

As a 4 year old, I attended kindergarten in the Washington Heights area of upper Manhattan, along with a multicultural, multilingual mix of kids: a true reflection of the neighborhood in which I grew up. I became a teenager in the Harlem of the 1970s; other than my mom and me, there might have been two other white people on the block. In ninth, 11th and 12th grades, I attended John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, known then for its racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity, sitting as it does on the line between tony Riverdale and poor/working class Kingsbridge. In the midst of high school, I lived a year in Puerto Rico.

All this is a means to say: diverse communities of all kinds are my normal.  But as I moved through higher education, as an undergraduate and graduate student, a professor and an administrator, the communities in which I moved and worked began to be populated more and more by people who not just looked alike, but thought, acted and behaved alike too. I’ve worked hard in my career to create the kind of diverse, intersectional kind of community that I grew up knowing, both by training as many students of color as possible, and by enacting strategic hiring.

I don’t just believe, I know, that any group made entirely of individuals who share the same characteristics is weakened by its lack of diversity; any problem it tries to solve will be ill-served, and any progress it attempts will necessarily be partial.

For many people, a diverse workplace means a representative one: having folks from different groups present in roughly similar percentages as their share of the overall population. That’s both nice and necessary—but ultimately insufficient.

We must create actively inclusive environments, in which people of color, women, gender non-conforming people and differently abled people are as free to bring their authentic selves to work, and to participate as openly, without fear of reprisal, as their male, white, straight and abled counterparts have always been.

Truly diverse, inclusive workplaces demonstrate equitable outcomes across all employee demographic groups. Successes, as defined by the particular workplace, whether these are promotions, raises, access to benefits, contracts, graduation rates, or other parameters, should accrue fairly across all populations of employees. Leaders should develop measures to track these metrics on a regular basis, investigate root causes for any imbalances, and implement necessary changes to improve them.

An actively inclusive and equitable workplace doesn’t just happen; it takes thoughtful consideration, positive and sustained action, and regular review. Managers must ensure employee recruitment across demographics and unbiased applicant review; provide the conditions in which all members of the community can work in an environment free of bias, prejudice and unnecessary barriers to success; and develop and examine the appropriate company metrics for accomplishment, while holding leaders accountable for the successes of all their team members.

No workplace or community is separable from the overall culture in which it exists. In the U.S., this context includes a history of racial and socioeconomic injustice, the fitful advance of civil rights for nonwhite and other marginalized people, the ways in which the economy plays out in people’s daily lives, and the divisive nature of our past and current political realities. None of us is an island; we bring to work our histories and those of our families, our private successes and failures, the ways of resolving conflict we learned as children, the sense of justice, right and wrong that were inculcated in us by our teachers and the systems with which we have engaged.

White people and men should be conscious of the ways in which our racial and cultural history and present reality affect the workplace, and the ability of team members to fully contribute, particularly when differences threaten to negatively impact employees’ experiences. Because ultimately, homogeneous workplaces are very costly, considering the incredibly negative downstream effects they have on human potential. What medical breakthroughs, technological advances, or revolutionary process improvements have we lost to a racially and economically segregated K-12 education, and a failure of the business community to demand better?  What little girl’s novel approach to conflict resolution never came to fruition because she wasn’t encouraged or provided the opportunity to articulate and follow her dream?

Among the list of things truly diverse workplaces lose: environments rife with sexual and racial harassment; locker room talk; the mean girls club; degrading jokes and innuendo; bullying; able-ism, and so much more. All of these steal productivity, lead to the loss of terrific employees and are hugely expensive in terms of both human and financial resources to manage and to litigate. Consider the fallout from #MeToo: if it has not already impacted your business, wouldn’t you do anything in your power to keep it that way? Having a multiplicity of voices in every conversation, whether it be water cooler talk or a discussion of high stakes corporate strategy, can make everyone better, more thoughtful, and ultimately lead to higher levels of success.

The world is beset by a multitude of problems that require the attention of as many creative, flexible and team-oriented people as we can develop. By advancing the call for diverse workplaces, the business community serves as a visible and vocal advocate for the development of all American talent—the country deserves nothing less.


Beth Olivares is the dean for diversity and executive director of the David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity in Arts, Sciences & Engineering at the University of Rochester, where she focuses on issues of representation, equity and inclusion among students, staff and faculty. She is also a founding partner of Equity Envisioned, a new educational consulting firm that works with colleges and universities to develop and implement action plans to address the critical issues faced by racial and ethnic minority students and faculty.