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When Building a Diverse Workforce, Hiring Is Just the Start

Diversity has a lot of benefits, but achieving it isn't as easy as it sounds.

Having a diverse workforce can pay off -- literally.

According to the Harvard Business Review, “a 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean.” There’s no reason to believe a similar phenomenon wouldn’t be true in the public sector. 

Other research shows that “diverse organizations make better decisions, are more innovative and are generally more effective,” says Robert Lavigna, director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement.

With those kinds of benefits, it’s a good thing support for diversity in the government workforce appears to be growing.

Last year, for example, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton vowed to double the portion of state government jobs held by minorities before the end of his term in 2019 and budgeted $2.6 million for the effort.

More recently, Delaware's governor, John Carney, signed an executive order "that will allow state agencies to consistently respond to reports of discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workforce," according to a state release. It also outlines precise ways that state employees can report complaints. 

In his State of the State address in late March, Carney vowed to create an agency focused solely on human resources and to hire a chief diversity officer.

“As the state’s largest employer, we need to set the example as a workforce that is fair, diverse and free from discrimination," he said.

Of course, achieving a diverse workforce isn’t as easy as it sounds. For one thing, hiring diverse people is only half the equation. 

“Simply hiring people who look and act differently isn’t enough,” says Lavigna, from the institute. “The organization has to make them feel welcome, comfortable and valued so they stay.”

Lavigna often thinks of what an African-American man once told him about being hired into a workforce and community that was mostly white: “No one could suggest to him where he could get his hair cut -- or go to church. We can’t forget about stuff like this.”

Workplace diversity, however, has moved beyond just racial diversity, notes Nelson Lim, executive director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania and a widely known expert in this field. 

“There’s all kinds of diversity,” says Lim. “There’s religious diversity, socio-economic diversity, diversity of thought and others.” 

“This is just my view here, but diversity, in and of itself, can breed conflict,” says James Collins, chair of the Delaware Governor's Council on Equal Opportunity Employment. “So when you bring together people from different backgrounds and perspectives, the inclusion part is very important.”

Many agree that one of the most important vehicles for enhancing a sense of inclusion in the workforce is diversity training -- in other words, educating employees about the benefits of working alongside, beneath and above individuals who come from substantially different portions of the population than themselves.

Most employers already value diversity. 

According to the Conference Board, a business research association, “in a recent opinion poll, 81 percent of respondents said that it is somewhat or very important 'to have employees of different races, cultures and backgrounds in the workplace.'”

One of the reasons for the strong support for diversity from employers, says Edwin Hudson, Minnesota’s deputy commissioner of management and budget, is the economy.

“We’re in a very tight labor market,” he says. “Anything less than 5 percent unemployment we call full employment. We’re now around the 4 percent mark. … If the labor market is very tight, we have to find ways to compete.”

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this incorrectly stated that Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton budgeted $2.6 billion for hiring more minorities. It was actually $2.6 million.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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