We may have sold diversity short ─ especially as a talent.

Historically, what may be largely responsible for such neglect is its somewhat coercive and controversial origin, which includes quotas, preferential treatment, group favoritism, and, of course, the many personnel dislocations and displacements that followed in its wake.  But now, much later and looking back, what do we find? Inequality has been addressed, affirmative action has been affirmed, and greater balance and access have been achieved. But most importantly, it is time to rescue diversity from the obscuration of past turmoil and to perceive its objective value as both a generalized and a specialized talent in its own right, and then factor it into talent recruitment.

The strongest argument for diversity is the familiar and powerful claim that the diverse makeup of the American workforce is largely responsible for its innovative achievements. Indeed, no talent recruitment program that ignored or slighted such a unique contribution of diversity could enjoy sustained support. Similarly, bringing the diversity of difference to team composition has significantly enhanced collaborative performance. The ability to think in terms of alternatives and apply the diversity principle of multiplicity has been equally productive. The degree to which diversity can position companies to be of a piece with their diverse global customers will determine their success in the global economy. It is time to rescue diversity from the periphery and to integrate and make it part of the mainstream of talent recruitment.

The first of four tasks to rescue diversity is to redefine diversity as difference and then to apply and require it of all employees, regardless of race or gender. This would then become the new, official across-the-board preference of the culture posted by human resources, claiming the following:

  • Diversity is a talent in its own right
  • It argues for a work environment where difference is valued as a norm
  • It multiplies the difference of others
  • It encourages, structures and optimizes the range of team performance
  • It requires that the culture be conceptually and intellectually multilingual
  • It welcomes the application of multiple lenses to problem-solving
  • It generates alternative perspectives and systems
  • It enjoys a symbiotic relationship with innovation

Given such benefits, diversity and recruitment need to become talent partners.

Maintaining a diverse organization, not as an act of compliance but of vision, is the second task to rescue diversity. However, it is no easy task. We need to examine the degree to which fitting in dictates who we hire. We often talk about the harmonious chemistry of a hiring candidate, how it matches and enhances those already there, and whether the candidate shares the same work ethic of the unit. We also consider if the candidate can hold his own, has thick skin, and whether he could partake in sarcastic exchanges at the water cooler. In short, fitting in does matter.

However, this shouldn’t be that surprising. There is a profound need to belong, to be part of the group and not the odd ball out. Company culture is often demanding, even coercive, so it does not take too much to mute differences. It takes action to change the composition of the workplace.

Here are a few quick correctives to keep in mind when recruiting for talent: Stop recruiting from the same schools, the same parts of the country, and from the same cohorts and sociological sectors; stop recruiting only MBAs, only U.S. citizens and only the young; hire the overqualified; recruit an artist; hire a philosophy major; and lastly, stop asking interview questions that steer or welcome fitting-in answers.

The third task to rescue diversity is to use virtual technology to import and model diverse talent to enrich problem-solving and extend the innovative reach of teams. The final task is to simulate such outcomes in training. For example, have employees play the game of “Difference” by conducting limited research to role-play immigrants applying for work or study visas. Elicit what they have discovered about the range and depth of their own difference and coping skills in the process. Lastly, analyze what has prevented or inhibited the full expression of that difference at work, such as what changes need to be made for them to receive visas for advanced study and promotion.

Diverse companies are talented companies, and talented companies are diverse companies, but only if they value that mutual intersect and the crossing of borders.