April 22, 2016

Embracing the Value of Diversity

Recently, I had the unpleasant experience of being turned down for a job interview. I overheard the interviewer tell a colleague that I lost out on the interview because he objected to the sound of my name. Undeterred, I went to a competitor of theirs and was successful in getting an interview there.

We all have our own ideas of what diversity means; but why is it so valuable to have diverse teams within our organizations? What kind of value does a diverse colleague contribute when working on a team? While there is much research out there that supports the value of diversity, and why it should be embraced, I decided to interview Cheryl Yanek and Adrienne Smith, members of the Information Technology Division I lead at the Special Libraries Association, to get their thoughts on diversity.

What is your definition of diversity? 
Cheryl Yanek: Diversity is including everyone as part of the table, including race, ethnicity, age, sex, sexual orientation, religion, marital/parental status, age, gender identity, nationality, and more. It helps with recruitment, retention, engagement. Diversity just makes sense all around.

Why is diversity important?
Adrienne Smith: Diversity is important for organizations with missions that depend on or cater to diverse consumers. Unless your target demographic is extremely narrow, it makes sense to enlist a diversity of employees in order to best represent and meet your consumers’ needs.

How do you work with your organization to reach their diversity goals?
Adrienne: Our team’s core responsibilities combined very disparate skill sets—information retrieval, linguistics (both traditional and computational), project management, and customer service. Therefore, we made an effort to recruit across academic disciplines and used the 80/20 rule, meaning that we acknowledged no one candidate would have all the desired qualities, but someone with 80% could be trained to get the remaining 20%.

How can organizations get their diverse employees to stay?
Cheryl: One problem a lot of organizations have is that they hire lots of diverse candidates, but the people don’t stay. Why? It often has to do with culture. Is it an up-or-out culture? Is the culture not very inclusive to working parents? Is there a lack of diverse role models at the top? Ask people WHAT they want, and be prepared for some brutally frank answers. That’s the only way to change things.

What advice do you have for management or organizational leaders who are interested in building both a both a diverse and inclusive team?
Adrienne: Building a diverse team requires, to an extent, disregarding the traditional recruitment handbook by paying attention to how strictly you rely on requirements for a position. If you’re overly focused on this academic degree or that professional experience, it’s easy to overlook a candidate who doesn’t necessarily check all your boxes but would bring a new perspective to your team. While it sounds cliché, it’s valid to try and think outside of the box in your diversity efforts.

Another strategy is to conduct group interviews with your team. This allows you to compare how similar or different team members are to one another, and potentially to see where new perspectives can spark a productive discussion and new ideas. If your team is composed of essentially the same type of person, it’s very easy to have groupthink and stalled innovation, versus a team that is not afraid to disagree and debate the merits of different approaches. Look for candidates who come to the table with both questions (“Why are things done this way? Have you considered this? What about trying that?”) and are not immediately dissuaded; this can indicate that a new team member will represent a diverse opinion that can make the group stronger.”

For those who are looking for more information on how they can help build their organization’s own diversity and make it a more inclusive environment, check out these resources:

Employers who shun diversity may find that diverse talent will instead work with and strengthen your competitors. What are you doing to advance diversity in your own organization?

Sophia Guevara
Sophia Guevara, MLIS, MPA, is the Virtual Events Committee Chair for the Special Libraries Association Information Technology Division. She is also the co-chair of the Social Network Analysis Topical Interest Group at the American Evaluation Association. She is currently looking for presentation and writing opportunities.