Merlene Davis: Diversity is integral to a business' success

Leah Smiley, founder and executive director of the Society for Diversity Executives & Professionals, a non-profit association
Leah Smiley, founder and executive director of the Society for Diversity Executives & Professionals, a non-profit association

The world is so connected, so interdependent, businesses have to learn how to interact with different cultures if they are to survive.

Some owners and corporate boards might understand that, but some individuals in the workplace aren't ready to accept diversity.

That attitude was never more evident than when Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams criticized Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear for taking part in a Hindu "ground blessing" ceremony conducted by Hindu priests at the behest of an India-based company that was bringing 250 jobs to Elizabethtown.

"He's sitting down there with his legs crossed, participating in Hindu prayers with a dot on his forehead with incense burning around him," Williams said. "I don't know what the man was thinking."

Beshear's camp said he was thinking about the 250 jobs that were coming to Kentucky.

Attempts such as Williams' to paint cultural diversity as a negative are occurring throughout the United States, especially at the grass-roots level of companies and education institutions, said Leah Smiley, founder and executive director of the Society for Diversity Executives & Professionals, a non-profit association.

"We have a negative view of diversity," Smiley said. "Diversity is good for business. The way we are currently doing things is not working.

"Williams was running for office, but there are people like that at companies and on college campuses," she said. The people to whom the comments are directed will want to "go back home or to someplace that is more welcoming."

And that would not be good for business, especially if the more welcoming atmosphere was with a competitor or another country.

Diversity involves acknowledging and valuing differences among people with respect to age, class, ethnicity, gender, physical and mental ability, race, sexual orientation and religion.

Our country is changing, particularly since international companies are building factories on our shores. No state or business can ignore that change and prosper.

When customers see employees who look like them or talk with customer service representatives who understand their culture, they are more likely to frequent the business and spend money, Smiley said.

But diversity also helps within the workplace. If younger members of an IT department talk down to older employees because of their lack of computer knowledge, those young people need generational training, she said. Respect for all employees lifts company morale.

"Diversity is more than race or affirmative action," Smile said. "It is multi dimensional."

Smiley will be the keynote speaker for the 2011 Multicultural Opportunities, Strategies and Institutional Inclusiveness Conference, which is in its fifth year and is sponsored by Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

The stated purpose of the two-day conference, "See What Condition Your Condition Is In," is to focus on how Kentucky, West Virginia, Florida and Tennessee are making progress in the national quest for equity and inclusion.

The result might be that businesses in those states need to re- emphasize diversity. But in a down economy and with organizations tightening their budgets, how can companies spring for programs that will encourage diversity?

If they make it a priority, they will find a way, Smiley said.

She used the analogy of a train that was scheduled to pull into a depot. Those who are prepared and waiting will find a good seat when the train arrives. Those who are unprepared will find the train full and won't be able to get on.

That train leads to markets many businesses haven't tapped, such as older consumers, international customers or young people.

Those organizations that see the benefits of a culturally diverse work force or one that is trained in cultural diversity will profit the most.

"We need to look at our organizational structures and cultures to see if they are inclusive, diverse and ethical," Smiley said. "Do they support the organization's values?"

During the conference three recipients will be honored with MOSAIIC Awards, presented to a student, community member or institution that is committed to diversity.

This year's recipients are the Lexington Public Library's Village Branch, which not only offers a variety of programs but also has staff members from Mexico, Cuba, Peru and the United States; the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates minority outreach committee, comprised of health professionals, educators, organ recipients and families of donors who make Kentuckians aware of the need for organ donations; and Carmen Combs, the screening and outreach coordinator at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center who has built diverse relationships to help improve the health of our community.

Just as those honorees changed how things had been done and increased their targeted audience, businesses must do the same, Smiley said.

"Most organizations don't care about diversity unless there is an EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) lawsuit pending," she said. "That has to change. Diversity has to be a part of the organization's strategy."