Diversity: Innovation driver and business strategy

Corridor companies strive to match their evolving customer base

Published: June 23 2013 | 6:30 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 4:55 pm in
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Almost 49 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited discrimination in workplaces and other spheres, the United States’ racial makeup has changed considerably.

Recently released data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the Asian population is growing faster than any other group in the country, a trend which holds true in Iowa as well.

As the state’s demographics continue to diversify, however, racial divides remain and even have intensified. This year’s results from a Diversity Focus survey showed that 26 percent of respondents — a 5-percent increase since 2008 — reported sometimes or frequently having experienced employment discrimination in what it has defined as a seven-county Creative Corridor region.

“It’s very disheartening and frankly frustrating because it shows a disconnect in our community on a few different levels,” said Stefanie Munsterman-Robinson, an investigator with the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission and a member of Diversity Focus board of directors. “We need to fill those gaps in somehow.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, whites made up 93 percent of the Iowa population in 2011, while blacks were 3.1 percent. Some 5.2 percent reported themselves as Hispanic or Latino, and 1.9 percent self-classified as Asian.

Data from Iowa Workforce Development also reveals racial disparities. Iowa’s 2012 overall unemployment rate was 5.1 percent. For whites, the number sunk to 4.8 percent. For Latinos, that rate increased to 9.1 percent.

The numbers are highest for Iowa’s black residents, who had a 15.8 percent unemployment rate in 2012.

Munsterman-Robinson said the employment-related complaints that cross her desk span applicants being denied positions or salary increases because of their ethnic background to employers refusing to provide accommodations, or in some cases firing, workers who have disabilities.

“Iowa is definitely more Caucasian, (but) we do have an influx of people of color,” Munsterman-Robinson said. “It’s just important to realize it’s not always going to be the status quo and we need to be progressive and proactive to make sure we’re ready to be viable. ”

"A business strategy"

Founder, CEO and Chief Inclusion Strategist Shirley Engelmeier of the Minneapolis-based InclusionINC – a consulting company that works with clients throughout the world, including Iowa City-based ACT, on diversity issues – said the corporate world is in a state of “diversity fatigue,” which has resulted from not seeing desired success from initiatives that were aimed to increase diversity.

“We did very little to change the culture,” she said. “Ten years ago, before this whoosh of globalization, you could hide from this.”

Echoing InclusionINC’s tagline, Engelmeier boiled down the issue: “Inclusion is a business strategy,” she said.

Many companies with offices in the Corridor – among them ACT, Alliant Energy and Pearson – already have taken note, dedicating staff and resources to increasing and retaining diverse work forces.

“We need to make sure that we are appealing to individuals from all sorts of backgrounds to attract talent from all different backgrounds,” said Anne Harris Carter, the Cedar Rapids-based director of corporate diversity and inclusion for Alliant Energy. “Generally, our customers don’t choose to do business with us. They do business with us because we are the provider.

"At the same time, our customer base is evolving, and we want to make sure we have the talent to be able to reflect that customer base but also to make sure we can meet their needs and anticipate their needs.”

Companies vary in the way in which they define diversity, but largely it’s about more than race. Diversity Focus’s survey highlighted people of color, women, people with disabilities as well as people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered.

Benita Wolff, director of ACT’s office of inclusion and diversity, said she favors a “broad and hopefully inclusive” definition of diversity, one that translates to recruitment and employment.

“We’re very intentional in casting a very broad net in attracting top talent,” said Wolff, who is also on the Diversity Focus board of directors. “We believe we get the best out of team members because they feel included in what we’re doing … . We want to value a lot of different perspectives.”

Aiming to hire employees with different backgrounds isn’t about altruism, Engelmeier said. It’s good business sense.

“I think any organization that is not focusing on diversity and inclusion is missing out,” said Kendra Thomas, U.S. Diversity and Inclusion Manager for Pearson, which has offices in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. “It really rounds out your business goals and your work force, and drives innovation.”

A journey, not a destination

Most diversity managers are reluctant to share precise data about the ethnic makeup of their companies. However, Harris Carter, Wolff and Thomas all stood by the efforts their corporations were making toward inclusion.

“I think most diversity professionals you would speak with would suggest that we would ever accomplish a goal related to diversity is a misnomer,” Wolff said. “Diversity is a journey.”

To Harris Carter, progress can be difficult to quantify.

“Part of this is, how do we have an inclusive environment and really maximize the diverse talents and backgrounds and perspectives of our work force. That’s important,” she said.

“What’s also important is that we’re using that to have a positive benefit for the communities that we serve. That’s a little bit trickier to measure.”

In her work with organizations, Engelmeier said she’s honest about the fact that there is no panacea.

“There’s no magic wand on this,” she said. “This is not simple.

"It’s like doing a product launch. It’s going to take time.”

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