Teaching Tolerance

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2007

In a scene from NBC’s Emmy Award-winning television show, The Office, the clueless regional manager, Michael Scott, calls down the wrath of corporate headquarters by making offensive racial comments in a bungling attempt to use humor in the workplace. The result is Diversity Day, an overly patronizing staff seminar on all things sensitive that ends up insulting Scott’s employees and making him appear more prejudiced, not less.

“It’s a funny episode,” says DeWanda Smith-Soeder, “and not that far from reality.”

Smith-Soeder knows what she’s talking about. A Sarasota-based diversity consultant and the founder of the local 250-member Black Business Professional Network, she’s been advising companies in the United States and Europe about how to embrace differences for 10 years. “Diversity is a higher level of difficulty,” she says. “It’s easy to get it wrong, even with the best of intentions.”

And getting it right starts at the top. “Diversity doesn’t just happen,” she says. “Management has to decide we need to make it happen and hold itself accountable.”

Businesspeople aren’t known for touchy-feely idealism—they look to the bottom line. So what’s the upside of diversity?

“Take an ecological analogy,” says Smith-Soeder. “A forest with a wide range of plants and animals is a healthy, thriving forest—if it’s hit with fire, drought or disease, it usually bounces back. A forest with just a few species is weak and sickly. One thing goes wrong, and it dies.”

In other words, if you staff the office with people from divergent backgrounds, each brings his own brand of problem-solving and customer knowledge. “People come up with solutions together they’d never find on their own,” she says. “A divergent workforce just works better. Research has shown it; it’s not just my opinion.”

That’s the good news. The bad news? “The manager faces a higher level of difficulty,” Smith-Soeder says. “A diverse workplace demands more management skills, more data, more understanding of the work group and the environment it functions in.”

Smith-Soeder recommends bringing in a diversity consultant who can implement a professional training program to get everybody on the same page. “That could be me, or somebody else, but you need to hire somebody,” she says. At the same time, the consultant helps to create a recruitment program to seek out people of diverse backgrounds.

But “just hiring them isn’t enough,” she says. “You have to give them a motive to stay: the possibility of advancement.” She advises management to continually monitor the office to make sure the diversity training sticks.

“It’s not easy,” Smith-Soeder continues. “The job is never done. But I don’t want to make it sound like a chore. People hear the word diversity and think, ‘It’s going to take me away from my real work. I’ll be walking around on cracked eggs.’ Diversity helps you do your job; it’s positive. It means a new way of thinking, the ability to deal with multiple realities. It’s better for customer relations, better for creative problem solving, better for the bottom line. Diversity is a solution, not a problem.”

Bev Alter agrees. She was CEO of Diversity Systems and Training in Hartford, Conn., from 1979 to 1995, and is currently senior vice president at Sarasota-based Kinzie Consortium. Legally, she says, the barriers are down and everybody can step up to the plate. The next step is taking down the mental barriers. “It’s not a matter of putting people in categories and being nice to everybody in that category. It’s a matter of getting beyond the categories and seeing people as people,” she says.

Her consulting firm implements that approach with six steps: acknowledgement (You are who you are); acceptance (Don’t change); appreciation (You’re cool); attraction (We need you — and you need us); achievement (We reward you); and advancement (We promote you).

“Inclusion is more than the obvious categories of race and religion,” Alter notes. “It includes everything from age to sexual orientation to culture and physical ability.”

Alter describes an exercise in which employees in a workplace are handed a deck of cards, each card colored to represent a different trait. The categories cover everything you can imagine—different ethnic backgrounds, being a single parent, having a conservative religious background, taking care of a parent and so on.

“We divide up the group into partners, ask questions, and then distribute the cards accordingly under each person’s name on a wall,” she says. “As the cards go up, people tell stories relating to their experiences as a single mom, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church or what have you. At the end of the exercise, with a room of only 20 people, we’ll wind up covering one entire wall with multicolored cards. At the end, you see that everyone belongs to a minority—or several overlapping minorities. At the same time, you see how little the labels really told you about the individual people. It’s a colorful, impactful exercise.”

Smith-Soeder says she’s not striving for a colorblind workplace.

“I can’t stand this expression, but it’s true: Life is not black and white,” she says. “You need to see the shades of gray, and all the colors of the rainbow. Having a diverse workforce means seeing reality from multiple viewpoints. It’s productive, it’s effective. It certainly isn’t blind.”

Let’s say, internally, your workplace is enlightened and tolerant. It’s all your employees can do not to run outside the office, form a circle and burst into a rendition of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”

Have your diversity problems all been solved? Not really.

There’s still the problem of the community outside the office. How accepting and diverse is it? There’s actually a way to measure it, and Richard Florida calls it “the gay and bohemian index.”

In his groundbreaking 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida offers statistics to show how the “creative class”—writers, professors, engineers, software developers, graphic artists and other “knowledge workers”—helps communities prosper. He also suggests that creative types are finicky. When they’re looking for cities to live in, they look for more than good jobs. They want a tolerant attitude and diverse subcultures.

According to Florida, most creative people feel like outsiders. He writes, “‘When they are sizing up a new company and community, acceptance of diversity, and of gays in particular, is a sign that reads ‘non-standard people welcome here.’”

Creative people also seek communities where art and culture spill out into the streets. According to Florida, “A vibrant, varied nightlife was viewed by many as another signal that a city ‘gets it,’ even by those who infrequently partake in nightlife.” He adds that, “They favor active, participatory recreation over passive, institutionalized forms. They prefer indigenous street-level culture—a teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians, and small galleries and bistros, where it is hard to draw the line between performers and spectators.”

By Florida’s reasoning, Sarasota-Manatee employers should think about diversity outside the workplace as well. What’s bad for diversity is bad for business, and that includes draconian noise ordinances and a lack of affordable housing and entry-level jobs for creative people in their 20s.

Lights, Camera, Inclusion

Shavon “Echo” Reed is an African-American filmmaker. Together with Melanie "Mel" Thomas, she formed MelEcho productions, a full-service television-video production company with clients that include the YMCA, the Republican Party of Florida and the Ringling College of Art and Design.

“It’s easy to be underestimated,” she says. “As two African-American women, we both understand that. We’ve had doors slammed in our face. At the same time, everybody’s going to have doors slammed in their face. If you believe in who you are and the service you provide, you won’t let that stop you. If you’re a member of a minority in this area, you’ve got two choices: complain all day, or get up off your butt, get out there and network and make connections. You can’t expect diversity to come to you. You have to take diversity to the community and make a voice for yourself. If you wait for this world to be a perfect world, you’re going to wind up waiting forever.”

In another words, unless you’re a white, male professional between the ages of 22 to 36, it’s not a good idea to wait for CEOs and HR managers to create diversity in the workplace for you.

You have to take steps.

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