Views from the EEOC
During the past year, I have spent a great deal of time traveling throughout the country, meeting with various groups vested in the work of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). These groups covered a broad range of perspectives: from employers to representatives of advocacy groups, professional and trade associations, academia, and government. As I met and listened, my intent was to better understand the issues and needs of the 21st century workplace and how the Commission could best position itself to help open doors, eliminate barriers, and ensure a level playing field in the workplace. The American dream holds the promise of allowing individuals to rise as far and as high as their talents, abilities, and interests allow. It is our sacred duty to keep that dream alive for every worker. It is also our only way out of the talent war.
Study after study alerts us to skills shortages, to the massive exit of baby boomers from the workplace – “brain drain” – and to our national shortcomings in developing the human talent necessary to meet our growing demands for knowledge- based professionals and technical workers in high growth industries. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars in obtaining H1-B visas and other types of permits to import talent from countries around the world while often overlooking the human capital potential that exists right here at home.
The first step to winning the war on talent is to ensure that talent is not wasted for reasons as irrelevant or immaterial as race, gender, color, religion, age, national origin, or disability. While our nation has made good progress toward this end, much still remains to be done. Barriers continue to exist that prevent women and people of color from contributing to their fullest potential. For individuals with disabilities, the issue is not advancement, but rather “entry” into the workplace. I look forward to the days when we can discuss ways for individuals with disabilities to shatter the glass ceiling, instead of ways to “locksmith” them out of locked doors.
The biggest barrier to full inclusion continues to be the existence of workplace cultures that are not fully inclusive and supportive of diversity. Cultural transformation must start at the top. While organizational leaders may commit in dollars and words to the principle of diversity, this is often not sufficient to drive organizational change. Leaders must effect change by modeling behaviors and practices of inclusion, and by holding their team accountable to the same standards of behavior. This is often said but infrequently carried out to the consistency and tenacity necessary to truly effect real and lasting behavioral change.
Very early on in my corporate career, I learned the awesome responsibilities that rest on the shoulders of every chief executive officer and organizational leader. As I was preparing my very first presentation to the managing committee of the company where I worked, my boss gave me a very valuable piece of advice. He told me that even though there would be many senior executives in the room to listen to my presentation, the one I needed to focus on and “sell” on my proposal was the CEO. He assured me that “when the CEO nods, everyone around that table nods.” He was right. All eyes go to the CEO when change is involved. And all eyes remain on the CEO throughout the change process to make sure he practices what he is preaching.
Eliminating cultural and attitudinal barriers that operate to exclude certain talent from advancement in the workplace is an efficient and cost-effective approach to maximizing our human capital.
With shifting demographics and an increasingly diverse marketplace, organizations successful at winning the talent war will be those that treat their human capital the same way they treat their customers. These organizations will set themselves apart from the competition by better understanding the needs of their existing and potential pool of talent, and by tailoring their offerings, in terms of culture, benefits, programs, assignments and compensation, to meet those needs. Successful organizations will continually reassess their offerings, adjusting and enhancing not only to remain competitive but, most importantly, to remain preferred.
Successful organizations will create an environment of honesty and trust in performance feedback, one where it is safe to mentor and share honest performance assessments with employees regardless of their race, gender, or other personal characteristics. Organizational and individual interests can only be served when both are willing to give and receive feedback that allows for growth in performance and productivity.
From the March/April 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®