It may be uncomfortable for corporate leaders to bring up the still-dicey subjects of race, gender, and other differences among employees, but Rachel Cheeks-Givan, a former Pepsi executive who co-taught a graduate-level course on diversity and inclusion at Manhattanville School of Business over the summer, has this message for company leaders who are reluctant to discuss these issues: Your employees are already discussing them, and you can make that something positive.
“In the workforce, if you’re not talking about it, your people are,” says Cheeks-Givan. She suggests business leaders “leverage that” to foster a more inclusive culture.
The Manhattanville class, called Business Strategies for a Globally Diverse Workforce, was taught by Cheeks-Givan and her colleague Scott Walsh, who most recently served as senior vice president, talent, and diversity for the 14,000 employees of Citigroup’s Global Functions. They’ve both seen the times change as workforce demographics evolve. Women now outnumber men in colleges, in both undergrad and graduate studies. Students from around the world now hold many seats in American graduate classes, and those students are increasingly returning to homelands such as India and the Philippines to find work, rather than remaining in the U.S.
“You could be a small company, or a large company,” Cheeks-Givan explains. “You’re always going to be dealing with people of different diversity dimensions.”
Some companies have gotten on board; others have taken steps but have a ways to go. Still others resist and may only make the change when forced to, perhaps while facing legal ramifications. And in Walsh’s view, American organizations are falling behind Europe. “I don’t think most of them are quite there yet,” says Walsh, who was a key member of Ernst & Young’s Women’s Initiative, which won the 2003 Catalyst Award, given to companies that take innovative steps to advance women in the field.
For Cheeks-Givan, the solution lies not merely in hiring employees from different backgrounds, but understanding what everyone has to bring to the table. She even recommends expanding their social networks. “Go to lunch with someone different from you,” she reasons. “Get to know them.”
Walsh also concedes that courses and seminars are a “Band-Aid” approach rather than a top-to-bottom strategic effort that starts with managers who lead by example. He cites the aforementioned Ernst & Young initiative, which included active career planning and the creation of a more flexible corporate culture championed by the firm’s senior leadership and reviewed regularly.
In he and Cheeks-Givan’s Manhattanville course, which was populated by eight students of different ages and backgrounds, they also benefited from the happenstance that their teachers—one an African-American woman, and the other a white male—reflected diversity themselves. “What better way is there to walk the walk?” Walsh says. “It enabled [the class] to hear and appreciate different perspectives.”
Walsh and Cheeks-Givan found that each of their students had a story to tell about a time when they experienced some form of bias, reinforcing that, as Cheeks-Givan puts it, “living diversity and inclusion” is an ongoing process and that for any company to compete, “it’s important to have global, cultural competency.”
“In the past, diversity was seen as a ‘nice thing to do,’” adds Walsh. “It has become critical to do it now.”