Diversity. Merriam Webster defines diversity as “the condition of having or being composed of different elements … especially, the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.” While certainly a mouthful, this definition fails to account for the human element that diversity truly requires: to be meaningfully diverse, all different types of people should feel comfortable in their environment. Said another way, meaningful diversity is not achieved when you are the sole individual who understands the facets and struggles of your race, culture, gender, etc., because meaningful diversity requires not only a change in the composition of the workplace, but a change in culture, understanding, and empathy. Without this critical second step, individuals from diverse backgrounds are left feeling isolated and uncomfortable.
Establishing this level of comfort is where a diversity committee comes into play. These committees can accomplish the objective of meaningful diversity in two primary ways: First, the committee should aim to ensure the recruitment and retention of different types of people by the organization—especially underrepresented minorities. Second, the committee also should facilitate cohesion and understanding among the existing workforce and these new recruits. These two concepts come together to create a comfortable space by stripping many corporate environments of their isolating features.
Let’s consider an example: You are an American attorney seeking employment at a prestigious law firm in the English-speaking country of Uganda. Because you went to law school in Uganda, the interview goes swimmingly, and the firm offers you the job. When you walk into the office for your first day of work, you notice something. You are the only non-Ugandan at the firm. Without a diversity committee, you will be forced to navigate this new environment on your own, with a very limited understanding of how Ugandan corporate culture operates. As a result, you encounter instances where you and your co-workers do not communicate ideas in the same manner. You may also encounter instances where your Ugandan counterparts are selected over you for fear that you may not “fit” well in certain settings with Ugandan clients. More importantly, on a daily basis, no one in the firm will understand your unique perspectives, because they are not American. Because you are often misunderstood, you feel isolated, feeling that no one at your firm can relate to you.
Switching gears, let’s assume instead that this Ugandan firm has a diversity committee that prioritizes recruiting other attorneys, not only from America, but also from Canada and Western Europe. In addition, the committee takes time to go over ways that it can improve your work environment and address general reservations between cultures that arose as a result of Uganda’s history with Britain (noting that Uganda gained its independence in 1962). Because the firm recruits other attorneys from America, Canada, and Western Europe, you are not the only person with an entirely different manner of thinking or an entirely different set of experiences. You have people you can relate to. Not only this, but you also have a more cohesive relationship with all of the members of your firm because the diversity committee explained that certain historical issues may impact the way all of the attorneys relate to one another. A certain level of “comfort” has been established.
So how does a diversity committee come to be? Unfortunately, in many instances, they are created not because diversity is a priority in corporate culture, but rather because the few diverse persons within the organization have lobbied and labored to have one created. The individuals in charge of the business and affairs of the firm should make the decision to prioritize diversity in the workplace and seek out ways to make that a reality. Of course, diverse persons should comprise a diversity committee, but it is important to remember that the lack of diversity in corporate America is an issue begat by years of institutional oppression, racism, and prejudice against all persons not fitting a certain mold. As a result, the committee should include a broad array of people so that the extra labor and effort required to reverse these issues is not shouldered by those already burdened by these systemic prejudices. At the end of the day, how a diversity committee might look will depend on the specific organization.
What should be kept in mind in creating the committee is that a diversity committee is necessary. Diversity is necessary. The focus should be not only on recruiting diverse persons, but also on retaining them. When an organization recruits and retains more people who are not of the majority, it allows a safe space to be created, which in turn allows a truly diverse workplace to flourish. Employees that feel respected and understood are better able to thrive in the workplace and be a part of a team—something that benefits the organization and its clients or constituents.
Why now? While the better question is why not now, the answer should be considered in light of current events. The year 2020 has been a whirlwind for everyone, but especially for people of color in the United States. In the midst of the uncertainty that COVID-19 has created, there is the added issue of police brutality against Black Americans and the historic outcry that followed the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. For some, these tragedies presented issues of a purely political nature, but for others, these events hit home. For a person of color, waking into an office where not a single person mentions the events going on in our country—or even the protests occurring a few blocks away—is confounding. How do I respond? Should I protest too? Who should I engage to discuss this? Who could I engage to discuss this without misunderstanding? Will anyone understand where I’m coming from? Does anyone other than me even care? Without a diversity committee to respond to those questions, many people of color are left without answers. And without those answers, the default becomes “business as usual,” which brings its own unique set of challenges.
If a diversity committee had been in existence at the time these issues arose, maybe these questions could have been answered. Maybe those struggling internally to decide where they fit in it all would at least have some help in deciding what is best for them. If a diversity committee had existed, those questions may not have arisen at all, because the events themselves would already be a part of an understanding workplace conversation. If a diversity committee had existed, the Ugandan workplace would be aware of and understand why the international events impacting their American employees—such as restricted travel and visa applications—would impact their productivity and well-being in the short term. A workplace affirmatively striving to create, support, and understand a diverse workforce has a greater opportunity to build an organization with unparalleled originality, creativity, and problem-solving capabilities.
To reiterate, diverse hiring is only the first step. More is needed, including a diversity committee.
About the Author
Micah G. Mahdi is an attorney with McAfee & Taft in Oklahoma City, focusing her practice on transactional matters. She also is a member of the University of Oklahoma College of Law’s Young Alumni Board and its Alumni Diversity Council and prioritizes helping young people in her community striving for a seat at the table in the professional arena.