Profound demographic changes in the United States and an increasingly global marketplace are driving recognition that embracing diversity is more than simply the right thing to do. Diversity programs represent a way for companies to fuel growth by tapping into multicultural markets. A shifting population mix, along with the demands of growing international markets, have chief learning officers wrestling with diversity as never before.
To help effectively train and develop an increasingly diverse employee population, CLOs are partnering with their diversity colleagues within the organization. They are tapping into the knowledge and expertise held within their organizations’ diversity departments to better understand that learners bring their own individual approach, talents and interests to the table. In exchange, these diversity practitioners also are counting on their learning counterparts to help drive diversity-related initiatives.
The goals of a diversity department are often quite similar to the objectives of learning and development departments. Both want to demonstrate that their initiatives help drive the talent agenda. Also, both want to become embedded into the culture of the organization, as opposed to being seen as one-off programs. Because organizations have limited resources, both departments must measure the effectiveness, impact and ROI of their programs.
It is no wonder then that chief learning officers are looking to bridge their learning strategies with their organizations’ diversity strategies. Learning executives looking to create a strong partnership with colleagues would be wise to begin by paying attention to their leadership development initiatives, employee affinity groups, diversity recruiting efforts, mentoring programs and instructional design approaches.
Despite the business case for diversity and increasing emphasis on multicultural initiatives, true diversity continues to elude many corporations. While the mission is clear — to foster an inclusive culture that strengthens relationships with employees, suppliers, customers and communities — methods of achieving that goal continue to spark debate.
This means that future leaders not only will need the ability to manage a diverse group of employees, but also must be able to drive diversity initiatives within their organizations. Chief learning officers charged with developing current and future leaders are well-served to work in collaboration with their diversity colleagues on such tasks.
“Part of my role is to partner with our learning organization to jointly develop diversity modules that are part of our management development program,” said Fernando Serpa, global manager for diversity and inclusion at Symantec Corp., an information security and availability solutions company. “With my involvement, we were able to make sure that our diversity training focused on building an inclusive work environment.”
Those learning executives who work in collaboration with their diversity colleagues also tend to concentrate less on building awareness and more on building skills when developing diversity-related programs. Instead of debunking stereotypes, training tends to focus on topics such as how managers can engage employees from diverse backgrounds.
The corporate diversity department at Exelon partners with the learning function by “providing guidance and council to the organization’s leadership development program,” said Martha Garza, director of diversity at the electric utility company. As a result of the partnership, all of Exelon’s development programs, from the executive level to the first-line supervisor, have diversity modules, many of which are facilitated by Exelon employees.
Companies that want to tap into the benefits of maintaining a diverse workforce realize the importance of employing a diverse leadership team. “Critical to the success of grooming minorities and women into leadership positions is understanding the many different cultural issues and differences that drive them,” Garza said. Chief learning officers can gain such insights by partnering with their diversity colleagues. By adding diversity dimensions to their leadership development programs, CLOs can help prepare leaders to learn fresh approaches to business problems, to see issues from new perspectives and to add new contacts to their business networks.
Employee Affinity Groups
Affinity groups are voluntary, employee-driven groups that are organized around a particular dimension. These groups usually focus on shared diversity interests or characteristics such as race, gender or sexual orientation. The intent of most affinity groups is to create a forum for the exchange of ideas and to strengthen the linkage to and within diverse communities.
Affinity groups often are vital partners to a company’s diversity strategy. The opportunity exists for CLOs to connect with various employee affinity groups to provide specific learning and development opportunities customized to the members of such groups.
At Exelon, the diversity organization and the learning organization partner to develop and design career development programs. These programs are intended to address cultural issues specific to the company’s five employee affinity groups: African-American, Asian, Latino, women, and gay and lesbian.
At DaimlerChrysler, an automotive and truck manufacturer, the Hispanic Employee Network was instrumental in bringing in thought leaders who could educate employees and supervisors on how to create conditions that allow Latino employees to perform at their peak. Along with creating a more inclusive work environment, the efforts also help ensure that all DaimlerChrysler employees are able to grow and contribute equally by creating learning opportunities for employees and management.
In order to reap the benefits of diversity, an organization needs to have a diverse workforce. Attracting such talent is often the task of the recruiting department. This provides another opportunity for collaboration between learning and diversity. By working jointly, learning and diversity practitioners can develop training sessions for recruiters that help them better connect with diverse applicants in order to create an appealing and positive employment brand within diverse communities.
Abe Tomas Hughes, president of the Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement, a nonprofit affinity organization, said that he is often invited to speak to recruiting professionals by learning and human resources executives who want to enhance the effectiveness of their Latino recruiting efforts.
“It makes sense for diversity practitioners to get involved with diversity recruiting efforts, because they understand the cultural elements involved,” Hughes explained. “But it makes just as much sense to have corporate learning involved, because they understand how to develop effective training programs.”
In addition, job applicants expect more accommodation to their needs and identities than in the past. Fewer job candidates are willing to compromise their unique characteristics for the sake of fitting in with corporate cultures built exclusively on traditional Euro-American male values and norms. Applicants quickly sense if prospective employers embrace a diverse workforce by how they are recruited. By helping recruiters understand this, CLOs can help their organizations attract top talent.
The inability to create and manage networks is a major barrier for nearly all non-traditional groups. These individuals often can’t get the information they need about industry trends, unwritten business rules and how to handle company politics adequately. That is why most agree that mentoring is something everyone in an organization needs in order to succeed. Unfortunately, diverse professionals don’t necessarily obtain these mentoring opportunities naturally.
The diversity organization can help identify high-potential women and minorities who might benefit from mentoring. Learning professionals can then work to match these individuals with more experienced members of the firm. CLOs can create mentoring programs that help to provide coaching, build skills and enhance awareness to develop the next generation of leaders.
Such mentoring programs can improve career development opportunities for minorities and women. Carrie Castelvetere, diversity and inclusion manager at DaimlerChrysler Services, said, “Our employee resource groups often provide nominees for mentors and mentees for our formal mentoring programs.”
“Because many young minority and women professionals often lack experience, exposure and access to mentoring opportunities, it is critical that learning executives make sure such individuals are not overlooked when developing these programs,” Hughes added.
Such involvement by the diversity department helps to ensure there are fair numbers of minorities and women who are engaged and successful in formal mentoring programs, which are often a part of leadership development efforts under the corporate learning umbrella.
It is not imperative that all partnerships between diversity and learning support only diversity efforts. Learning executives also can greatly enhance the effectiveness of their learning programs by seeking insight from their diversity colleagues.
According to Serpa, a learning department can gain much insight from diversity professionals into how to effectively customize training for diverse audiences. “At Symantec, we often rely on the 23 diversity councils we have around the world to help us customize and roll out training initiatives in their countries,” he said.
Iris Ware, a manager in the learning and career development department at DaimlerChrysler, said that since learning practitioners need to consider the learner characteristics of a diverse employee population when developing programs, they should seek out the guidance of diversity practitioners. “We often look to our diversity colleagues to serve as subject-matter experts to review our content for appropriateness and to help us localize particular programs so that we meet the learning needs of a diverse target audience,” Ware said.
When cultural differences are not understood and appreciated, people tend to stereotype and discriminate. By including diversity dimensions in the design of learning strategies, CLOs are helping to create cross-cultural relationships that broaden and deepen worldviews, stimulate thinking and creativity, and boost effectiveness and productivity.
An Inclusive Work Environment
Leadership development, mentoring, recruiting, affinity groups and instructional design efforts all provide opportunities for learning executives to bridge the gap with their diversity departments. Effective partnerships between diversity and learning are critical. Whether an employee is an entry-level trainee, a team leader or a top manager, his career success increasingly depends on how well he can understand and relate to a diverse group of people.
Serpa encourages CLOs to look beyond programs when it comes to diversity. “I encourage all executives, including those working in the learning function, to look beyond race and gender when thinking about diversity. Look at what you are doing to make all employees feel more included in the workplace, because this will not only drive your learning agenda it will help drive business results,” he added.
Castelvetere agreed. “When you integrate diversity into learning strategy, you also help to support collaboration and knowledge sharing, and these are fundamental to creating an inclusive work environment,” she said.
Garza concluded, “We all want to attract, develop and retain the best and the brightest. But those organizations that can create an environment that harnesses the unique talents of a diverse workforce will win the war for talent.”
Robert Rodriguez, Ph.D., is faculty chair of leadership and human resource programs at the Capella University School of Business. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.