Dealing with Diversity
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Writing about ‘Diversity’, I am reminded of an incident from several years ago when I was working with an MNC in Bangalore. Those were the days when the concept of diversity was relatively new in India and most MNCs had a diversity program just because it was being driven as part of their global agenda.
Diversity is not just about hiring diverse candidates. It is more about preparing the organization to manage them.
Our CSR team had worked with an NGO and lined up a few physically challenged candidates as potential hires.
Personal interviews were arranged over a weekend and I was with a team of Managers evaluating the candidates for possible roles in our teams.
I was looking forward to doing my bit towards the organization’s diversity agenda.
A Senior Manager, who was also my mentor, was accompanying us. An hour into the interviews, we took a break and he walked over to my desk. Looking into my notes, he asked “You have shortlisted so many?”
“Yes, I have quite a few entry level roles in my team; I can accommodate five or six candidates”
“Don’t go overboard. Just hire the best two candidates from the lot. Not more than that”
“Trust me; it will be quite a challenge managing them… I’ll explain later.”
I trusted his judgement and hired just two candidates from my original shortlist of six. A few days later, when we caught up over a coffee, he explained why he had stopped me.
He had participated in a similar exercise the previous year and had enthusiastically hired a few differently abled candidates into his team. To accommodate them he had specifically created a few roles with relatively less complex work.
All was well while the new employees settled down and mastered the roles assigned to them. But by around eight months they were bored with their work and getting restless.
Hire for a career, Not for a role.
Just like all the other team members, they wanted to grow - to the next level, to new roles. But they lacked the qualifications and the technical skills required for most other roles.
The bottom line was that these employees were stuck. They had been hired for a specific role, which they had eventually outgrown; and the organization had not planned on what would be their career path.
You are not doing any favours. Diversity hiring is a requirement for the organization’s success.
“Don’t assume that you are doing a favour by hiring the physically challenged and expect them to be content forever in the role they are hired for. Just like any normal employee, they too have aspirations. When they see that they cannot grow or move into other roles, they will get frustrated and feel discriminated against.” My mentor had explained.
This time around, we consciously planned ahead, looking at an eighteen month horizon - which was the normal eligibility criteria for all employees to apply for new roles.
We implemented a structured process to understand the interests, abilities of our differently abled employees and up-skill them for a career.
For example, a candidate hired for basic data entry tasks showed a keen interest in working on reports. We arranged for him to be trained on advanced MS Excel, PowerPoint and macros, thus enabling him to eventually apply and move into an analytics and reporting role.
An interesting feedback from one of our physically challenged employees that needs to be highlighted is that he felt the team was being ‘overly helpful’.
When the entire team was working extra hours to complete an urgent deliverable, he was not roped in to contribute. The Manager did not want to inconvenience him and asked him to log out after his regular work was done.
There is line between being helpful and patronizing.
In trying to ensure the employee’s comfort, the manager had inadvertently discriminated against him. This feedback resulted in a set of orientation sessions for the team and for the managers on how to meaningfully engage with the physically challenged co-workers.
Over the years, I have seen several diversity related initiatives. Among other things, all the successful programs had three things in common:
• The hiring was planned with a long term perspective; where the initial selection criterion was not unduly diluted. Ensuring that the candidates hired under the diversity programs could be set up for a long term career.
• Once hired, they were treated as normally as possible; just as any other team member.
• Adequate importance was given to training the Managers and peers on how to deal with diversity in their midst.