Variety: “The Spice of Life” – and a Key Ingredient for Workplace Success

July 9, 2024

From Bland to Bold: Expanding Horizons

If you’re like me, you love a broad range of foods.  One day I’m craving a burger, the next day it’s bean enchiladas.  Later in the week, maybe a vegetable stir fry or a curry.  Pizza.  Spaghetti.  Jambalaya.  Shrimp and grits.  So many options – and I love them all!

I grew up on a basic meat and potatoes diet, which is not unusual for the 20th century American midwestern suburbs.  Looking back now,  the foods I ate as a child seem bland.  Over time, I introduced my palate to a wider range of flavors and spices.  I can still enjoy meals that remind me of my childhood, but I don’t want to eat that way every day.  Variety – as the saying goes – truly is the spice of life.  

In the same way, employing people with diverse backgrounds adds to your organization.  By hiring employees with a variety of skills and perspectives, we add depth to our business and improve performance.  Diversity is about more than regulatory compliance: It’s a business strategy that yields benefits for everyone. 

Why Diversity Matters in the Workplace: A Tale of Two Teams

Imagine  a room with 8 people who were born in the same year, grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same college, graduated in the same year, and had the same major – for example’s sake, let’s say they all majored in biology.  In the room next to them is a group of 8 people with little in common – one is a millennial, one Gen Z, two are Boomers.  One is from the Bronx.  Another is an Iowa farmer.  One double majored in art history and English.  Another is a gym teacher.  Yet another, a park ranger. 

Now, let’s give each group a name and bring the two rooms together for a game of Trivial Pursuit.  The first is Team Same; the second, Team Varied.  Let’s see how Team Same and Team Varied do in a round of Trivial Pursuit. 

Team Same rolls the die.  They get to pick their category and confidently go with Science and Nature. 

The first question is read from the card: What’s the shape of a camel’s spine?  This is an easy one for our bio majors, all of whom know that, despite those humps, a camel’s spine is straight.  

Team Same rolls the die and again lands on Science and Nature.  “What color does litmus paper turn if a solution is acidic?”  Everyone on Team Same knows this one, too.  “Red or pink” is their answer and they are correct.  At this point, Team Same is feeling pretty darn confident.  Two rolls – two correct answers.  All these educated minds on one team - this should be easy!

Team Same rolls again and lands on Arts and Literature.  The question this time around is “What Richard Adams book includes an account of Bigwig’s encounter with a fox?”  Dang.  Team Same isn’t so comfortable with this topic.  The timer runs out.  Team Varied has a chance to answer.  

Team Varied takes a few moments to discuss amongst themselves.  The English major readily knows the answer as “Watership Down” and the park ranger, who was a liberal arts major in college, agrees.  Team Varied answers correctly, advances and rolls the die.  They land on Sports and Leisure.  The English major rolls his eyes – “Don’t count on me for this one,” he says to his teammates.  

The question this time is “What soccer player was known as The Black Pearl?”  Again, the team members take a few moments to chat.  They turn to the gym teacher, hoping her expertise in sports will pay off.  As expected, it does, and the team confidently goes with her suggested response, “Pele!”  

Our game continues, with Team Varied at the helm.  Next topic – Geography.  How many U.S. states border California?  The park ranger, who worked for 5 years in California National Parks knows the answer is 3.

Finally, our piece lands on Science and Nature.  Team Same, who was beginning to feel a bit despondent, perks up.  Maybe they’ll get control back.  The question is read:  “Which chemical element is a primary component of fertilizers and is essential for plant growth?”  Oh no, Team Varied’s farmer easily knows that the answer is Nitrogen.  

Real-World Implications for Organizations

At this point, you may be saying, “I get the idea, but what does this game of Trivial Pursuit have to do with a company?”  Just as Team Varied, because of the diverse backgrounds, experience, and knowledge across the team, had a clear advantage over Team Same, organizations with employees with diverse backgrounds, educations, and life experiences, are at an advantage over organizations that don’t.  Diversity brings with it a broader internal perspective and understanding within an organization which, in turn, positions an organization to serve the needs of a broader customer base.

Interestingly, it’s not just a matter of broader perspectives and knowledge.  Studies have shown that diverse teams are more likely to question their assumptions, examine facts, and look at things objectively.  Diverse groups, as a rule, share and process information more carefully than homogeneous ones, which tends to drive more accurate outcomes.  

Let’s apply this to a company.  Hypothetical Company A has 12 employees – they are all straight Caucasian women between the ages of 35 and 45 who grew up in Wilmington, DE.  What are the potential disadvantages of an organization that meets this demographic profile?  I posed this question to ChatGPT.  In the section that follows, ChatGPT’s answer appears in italics followed by a bit of commentary from me.

Employing only straight Caucasian women between the ages of 35 and 45 from Wilmington could lead to several potential disadvantages for an organization:

Lack of diversity:  By limiting the workforce to a specific demographic, the company may miss out on diverse perspectives, experiences, and talents that could benefit the organization.  This lack of diversity may hinder innovation, creativity, and problem-solving abilities.  

Comments: As was the case with Team Same in our hypothetical game of Trivial Pursuit, if we employ only people with similar backgrounds and experience, our organization is limited – like an orchestra where everyone plays flute. There’s nothing wrong with the flute, but the fullness of the orchestra is dependent upon the richness, blend, and variety that comes from each instrument playing together.

Ineffective marketing and customer relations:  Limiting the diversity of the workforce may hinder the company's ability to effectively understand and connect with a diverse customer base.  This could lead to missed opportunities for growth and customer retention.

Comments:  You’re probably familiar with the saying that goes something like “Before you judge a person, walk a mile in their shoes.”  While probably not its initial intent, this saying has relevance when considering the importance of diversity in an organization.  Just as individuals bring unique perspectives shaped by their life experiences, a diverse employee base ensures that the organization is equipped to understand and address the varied needs of its customers. 

To follow this metaphor through:  An organization where some employees have “walked” in sneakers, others in steel-toed work boots, still others in high heels, and even a few that prefer bare feet, is better positioned to understand the needs of customers (and potential customers) who “walk” in those same shoes.

By building an employee base with a diversity of perspectives, the organization becomes better equipped to tailor its products, services, and interactions to meet the diverse needs of its customer base.  If we fail to do so, the organization may inadvertently overlook or misunderstand the needs of customers who do not fit that mold.  This can result in missed opportunities for engagement, satisfaction, and ultimately, customer retention.

Limited pool of talent:  By narrowing the scope of eligible candidates, the company may struggle to attract and retain the most qualified individuals for various roles.  This limitation could hinder the organization's ability to adapt to changing market demands and technologies.

Comments:  It’s a challenge to find employees.  To maximize your talent pool, it’s important to ensure that you are casting your recruiting net broadly.  How do we cast a broad net?  By posting positions in a wide range of places in search of candidates – not just talking to your neighbors and others in your social circle.  By ensuring that job “requirements” truly are required for the job (is that college degree in business really needed for success?).  By offering the option of remote work, wherever feasible.  By considering non-traditional workers – second chance workers, semi-retired workers, part-time workers.  By using inclusive language in job postings.  All these strategies will increase your talent pool and increase the diverse nature of your prospective employees. 

Negative impact on morale:  Employees from other demographic groups may feel marginalized or undervalued, leading to decreased morale, productivity, and engagement.  This could contribute to higher turnover rates and difficulty in building a cohesive team.

Comments:  In the question that I posed to ChatGPT, my hypothetical organization had complete adherence to the gender, age, sexual orientation, and ethnicity of the defined profile.  But what if the company had 12 employees that fit the profile and then hired someone who didn’t fit that profile?  Pretend that the new hire is you.  You may see things differently than your co-workers and, as a result, you may feel disregarded or undervalued.  You may struggle to connect with and contribute to the morning water cooler chat (is that still a thing?)  You may feel uncomfortable speaking up at meetings, especially if your perspective is different than everyone else’s.  This can lead to morale issues that in turn can impact your productivity and engagement.  Statistics have shown that you’re much more likely to look for another job and to do so quickly.  The more diverse the organization, the less likely it is that any one employee will look around and feel they don’t “fit in” and decide to take their talents elsewhere.

Potential for discrimination and regulatory compliance risks:  Restricting employment based on race and age could raise legal concerns and accusations of discrimination.  Discriminatory practices can result in regulatory investigations and penalties from government agencies, damage the company's reputation, lead to lawsuits, and result in financial penalties. 

Comments:  We’ve been focusing on the benefits of a diverse workforce; however, we shouldn’t ignore the legal implications of hiring practices that are overtly discriminatory.  Employment practices that favor a select group are against the law and create significant risk for the organization. 

ChatGPT’s big finish - Overall, an organization that restricts its workforce to straight Caucasian women between the ages of 35 and 45 may face significant challenges related to diversity, legal compliance, talent acquisition, organizational culture, and market competitiveness ultimately impacting its long-term success and sustainability.  Embracing diversity and inclusivity can foster a more vibrant and resilient workplace that better serves the needs of both employees and customers.

Obviously, the question that I posed to ChatGPT is extreme - and hopefully unrealistic.  However, it helps to point out the impact that lack of diversity brings. 

Create Your Organization’s Symphony of Diversity

Diversity isn't just about meeting quotas or ticking boxes; it's about recognizing and embracing the unique perspectives, experiences, and talents that individuals from different backgrounds bring to the table.  Just as a variety of ingredients enhances the flavor of a dish or a diverse set of instruments creates a harmonious symphony, a diverse workforce enriches the fabric of an organization.

In an organizational context,  where complex issues are addressed daily and innovative solutions are sought, diversity can be a critical asset.  A team composed of individuals from a variety of racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, age, and cultural backgrounds brings a breadth of knowledge, creativity, and problem-solving approaches that, together, can lead to more robust decision-making and better outcomes for customers.  And if that’s not the definition of a winning team, I don’t know what is.  


Article Contributed by Karen DiGioia