Editor’s note: Here’s a question-and-answer session with Claire Damken Brown, founder and president of Damken Brown & Associates, a Colorado consulting firm that specializes in diversity and equal employment opportunity strategies, gender communication, sexual harassment prevention and cultural competency. Brown is scheduled to lead a presentation at a Sept. 21 meeting of the Western Colorado Human Resource Association in Grand Junction. Connie Schulthies, a member of the WCHRA board, conducted the interview.
Q: Can you tell me a little more about your background?
A: I have 25 years of experience working with Fortune 50 companies directing diversity related organizations, 16 years with AT&T and then Lucent Technologies, starting with (equal employment opportunity) work/
affirmative actions and then into investigating discrimination cases globally and training professionals. During that time I was able to continue my education, completing my master’s and PhD. My doctorate degree focused on male/female workplace communication.
Q: Diversity is a very broad subject. Do you have a simplified definition of diversity?
A: Diversity is the ways people differ and qualities of being unique at both an individual and group level.
Q: With regards to diversity in the work force, does the size of the organization matter?
A: No, all organizations deal with or will at some point deal with a diverse work force. Organizations need to develop a management process that builds on the individual differences of their workforce for the benefit of the organization. The ability for an organization to fully utilize an employee’s potential based on the awareness of their employee’s uniqueness can positively affect the bottom line.
Q: What does it mean to manage diversity?
A: In the old days, it was something we had to do. It was a nice thing to do. Now, it is financial with regards to the bottom line. The organization has a choice to ignore issues related to diversity and open them up to a potential lawsuit or investigate and resolve issues before any adverse action is taken.
Q: Why should a business owner and/or human resources manger care about diversity?
A: America has always been a diverse population, which continues to evolve through technology, globalization, generational gaps, ethnicity, etc.. Thus, the better we communicate with and understand our employees and our customers, the better the organization will become as a whole, from the bottom line, to employee and customer retention. Employees want to work in an environment that is welcoming and respectful. And if your employees feel welcome, respected and accepted, that will carry over to your customers. A diverse population that feels welcome and respected will also allow for creation of different ideas or new approaches to doing things.
Q: Which diversity topic or issue is often overlooked in an organization?
A: First would be socio-economic status. That is a person/employee’s background, their concept of work and why they work. (i.e. Understanding that some employees come to work when they are sick because they don’t feel they can afford to stay home, etc.) We will talk more about this subject at the WCHRA September lunch meeting. Second would be the generational gaps. Most work forces have employees that range in age from 16 to 70, and communicating to a 70-year-old is different than communicating with an 18-year-old. The same is true in regards to their concept of work and reasons for working.
Q: What is the most common mistake in our thinking about diversity?
A: The most common mistake I see is when an organization says they value diversity and have it written in their policies, but the organization does not reflect that in its actions. Leaders need to walk the talk. There needs to be congruency in what they do, what they say and what their policies say.
Q: How can organizational leadership and HR take a more active role in diversity within their organization?
A: Leaders need to take the opportunity to learn and understand the background and skills of their work force and then use that to the benefit of the organization and the customers. For example, knowing that your employee speaks a different language may be helpful in relating with customers. Human resources’ role needs to be the “heart” of the organization. They are the center of creating a welcoming and inclusive environment. I will provide some HR action items during the September WCHRA lunch meeting.
Q: Many people say we are off track striving for multiculturalism, that it does not work and is causing great national divides. What do you think?
A: As mentioned before, America is a very diverse population, and that is nothing new. What we need to do is to celebrate who we are and our individual histories and remember that we are all Americans in the end and that is our American heritage.
Q: Should organizations have formal policies and procedures relating to issues about religion and the workplace?
A: I do not believe there is a need for a separate policy beyond the EEO policy requirements, but I do feel that you do need to make reasonable effort to accommodate issues related to religion.
Q: Can you give us some bullet points regarding your presentation at the September WCHRA lunch meeting?
A: I will be discussing: the strategic role of an HR manager for creating and maintaining an inclusive workplace, developing HR’s role as an advocate for supporting a welcoming, respectful organization, examining the big picture of organizational diversity and steps an HR manager can put in place and much more.