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Monday, June 15, 2009

Our Strength Lies in Our...


I know you thought I was going to say "our strength lies in our diversity." That (and similar messages) are prevalent. We have diversity committees, VPs of Diversity, affirmative action plans and call minority candidates "diverse candidates." (Which drives me absolutely insane, but that's another topic.)

When we moved to Switzerland we enrolled our daughter in one of the most "diverse" schools on the planet. If you were to wander down the halls you would see children with skin colors in all possible shades and colors. A map outside my daughter's classroom identifies the home country for each child in the class. Several of the children in her class spoke little to no English at the beginning of the school year.

To add to the mix, many of the children are from mixed culture marriages--mom is from one country, dad is from another, and they are living in a third country.

The school is highly successful. It has an outstanding reputation. High schoolers go on to great universities. They have less of a problem with bullying than other schools. It's all that diversity, right? Children are exposed to different cultures and therefore learn to respect others, right?

Well, sure. I love that aspect. But, in terms of true diversity (or differences), I have never been involved in a less diverse organization.

Here is how the children are the same:
  • Same socio-economic class. (True, some kids have more money than others, but there is a definite floor.)
  • Educated parents.
  • All have been the "new kid" and know what that feels like.
  • They have all lived outside their home country.
  • Stable home life. (Definite exceptions, but a look through the school directory yields only one single parent household. My guess is that single parents don't do the international career thing as often because of custody and other issues.)
  • A majority have a stay-at-home parent.
  • Education is seen as a priority by the parents.
Yes, their native languages vary. Their skin and hair colors cover the entire range of possibilities. Religions run the gamut. There is definite diversity. But there is definite unity as well.

So is it the diversity or the unity that makes the school so successful? I'd say both. The students learn a lot from each other. Different ideas are brought out in almost all activities. But, the things that unify them are strong as well.

If you grabbed a bunch of random kids from different countries and threw them together, would you get the great results this school gets? I doubt it. You'd run into many problems that the unify factors tend to nullify.

So, what does this mean for companies and hiring? I think it means that as you are looking towards diversity as the savior of your company, you also need to look towards unity. What things make your employees unified? Is there a shared company culture? Are there goals that everyone works towards?

Sometimes we get so focused on our diversity that we forget that we need unity in order to make things work. Without that, you have an interesting dinner party, but no road map for success. With both the unifying factors and the rich diversity of experience, you can achieve greater things.


jaded hr rep said...

I'm a big believer in creating an 'inclusive' culture rather than a 'diverse' culture. The idea of being inclusive looks more internally at an organization (country?) and making sure we systematically empower everyone to participate vs. just looking at adding more diversity. This sounds more like unity in spirit, but unity also implies a single-minded-ness or a common goal / perspective, which may or may not be true in a diverse environment.

Geore A Guajardo said...

Great observation,
In the past few years I have read a few papers about re-defining the concept of diversity. Ostensibly, the reason diversity is important to organizations is that it allows for differences in experiences, problem-solving approaches, etc. It's not so much that we value the color of your skin, but what that has meant for your cognitive development.

Of course, looking at a sea of different colored faces is much easier than trying too measure differences in cognitive approaches... so too often we end up with the wrong kind of diversity.

Olivia said...

I agree - diversity comes from the outside, unity of purpose comes from the inside. Creating an effective employee - to take the divergent viewpoints, strengths and experiences of a variety of people and harnessing them toward the company's common goals is our entire reason for being. (at least to make the jump from being HR, not Personnel)

RJ Hall said...

Interesting thoughts. I was just reading something about project teams where you want to have a more diverse group because that group will often take a broader approach to solving a problem or issue, whereas a group with similar experiences will often be more focused and less open to outside ideas.

I guess for me, I like diverse ideas and unity of purpose. That may be what you are saying; for me, both are probably what can help a group be successful.

Thistledew Farm said...

I vote for the unity - let's stop celebrating our differences and start working as a group with a common goal.

Charles Montgomery said...

Thistledew Farm votes for the fallacy of the excluded middle.

Let's celebrate our differences as we work on common goals..

Amanda said...

You should remember that "stable home life" and "single parent household" are not mutually exclusive.

Unknown said...


Single-parent household is not ideal.

Meg McCormick said...

Our neighbor sends her daughter to an exclusive private primary school. She touts its diversity, among other things. But we have pointed out the same things you did - essentially, it's "rich kids" of many races! Call it inclusive, but diversity? Bah.

HRD said...

Surely diversity is not just about ethnic origin or religion? That's just one element.

The importance of diversity to an organisation comes in having different view points, different approaches and for many organisations representing your customer. You only have to take a look at the banks to understand how things go wrong when you have too many alike people running an organisation.

Unity of purpose is important, but when it becomes "group think", it also becomes highly dangerous.

Amanda said...

I didn't comment on whether it fit into some people's narrow notion of "ideal". I just pointed out that it is wrong to use "single parent household" as term meaning "not stable household."

Anonymous said...

I don't think Evil HR Lady was trying to imply that single households must be unstable. Plus, she said exceptions and with only one single parent household that means at least one of the two parent households isn't stable either.

On Topic: I like what Evil HR Lady says about unity here. I think a lot of people don't get that unity in purpose and goals is more important than looking the same or having the exact same cultural background.

Unknown said...

OK. Single parent homes can be stable, just as someone in the ICU is stable. Does not mean it is the best environment for children.

My dad taught 6th grade on a Navy base where a lot of the fathers were out to sea for six months. His students clung to my dad because they were so desperate for an adult male in their lives.

Anonymous said...

Come back and post EHRL! The natives are getting restless...and arguing about single parent homes.

Anonymous said...

On the topic of diversity and unity, why does your profession appear dead set against hiring employees with disabilities?

If somebody is disabled and unemployed for a long period of time, must he or she fall socially and professionally to the bottom of a tall empty well, never to return and trade his or her talents in the American marketplace?

I fell there. While down there, I earned an engineering degree. I became educated in accounting, and am taking the CPA exam. I have made the most of temporary job opportunities. But I'm still there.

Are you tasked with keeping me off of your team if I apply to work for your company? No doubt you'll press me to talk about my extended unemployment.

Is it best to lie to you, or shall I preserve my honesty as I have done all along throughout my job searches?

Guy Farmer said...

I really like that you mentioned that diversity is also about the things that bring us together. I frequently work with groups that are so focused on highlighting differences that they walk around all day admiring how different they are. The result: They don't come together.

When we celebrate differences and focus on helping people work together from a common starting place we open the door to creating an inclusive work environment.

Russ said...

We all need to unite is right.

Differences can help us learn different perspectives, but a well-oiled team can move mountains.

Oscar said...

Wow the topic is interesting and the conversation added more value! Diversity makes us learn at work places, develops tolerance, brings in ideas, etc..But, these advantages can only be seen if there is something that unites us. Otherwise, diversity can be problematic. In this case, the “rich class” was a uniting factor. Now, the organizations have to know what is or should be the uniting aspect at their places and then include behavioral aspect in tests while hiring. This step will make sure that all employees coming in share same attitude toward that particular uniting factor.
HireLabs customize tests including behavioral testing. For assistance:

George said...

To me, organizational diversity is a confused concept. Businesses have difficultly approaching this topic, so they make it so grandiose and vague you can't ask questions and only blindly accept that it's extremely important. Just another idea well-intentioned, but awkawrd in practice.

Clearly, diverse perspectives are valuable to a team. Plain and simple. Can't control it, you can only value it, and hope it occurs naturally in the hiring process.

Caroline said...

I think that it is SO important to identify that diversity does not just stem from the color of one's skin-- it is the background and experience of each person that makes a team diverse. My university had a problem with this-- they didn't recognize the diverseness of the students that it did have, and instead constantly worried about attaining more "diverse" individuals. Diversity takes many different forms, and it is important for all organizations to remember this.

Bravo for a well written article and for stimulating such great discussion