Posted on September 29, 2010

The Evolution of Language in Diversity Management

Raymond Arroyo, Diversity, Inc., September 28, 2010

Diversity management has come a long way since I joined in the early 1990s. Scores of books have been published on this business strategy. Hundreds of consultants earn their living by specializing in diversity management, and thousands of provocative articles have been published by a range of organizations on this topic. There are also diversity-management courses and certificate programs available at many universities. Some even offer a master’s degree. Today, most major corporations have chief diversity officers (CDOs), some of whom report directly to their CEOs. In addition to focusing on racial/ethnic and gender diversity, many CDOs have added other, less-visible diversity dimensions such as sexual orientation/identity and religion, to name only two.

In the past few years, several in the field have also added “inclusion” to their diversity strategies (and titles) as a visible symbol that these strategies aren’t just about diversifying the work force: They are about having systems and processes that are fully inclusive, where all stakeholders’ contributions are sought, valued and measured. Furthermore, an increasing number of organizations have expanded their diversity scope to encompass global markets.


Precise Communication Needed

Despite significant progress, the language used today to communicate diversity has not evolved with the broader focus. Almost daily, I read or hear references to an individual being “diverse” or someone being a “diversity candidate.” If our diversity initiatives include multiple dimensions and are fully inclusive, those descriptions are too narrow.

In addition, many organizations still have “diversity recruiting” departments. But they don’t advance diversity to its full potential. Often, recruiting departments focus on recruiting underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. {snip}

Diversity is about understanding and leveraging the diverse triggers that motivate different groups to create increased value for employees and their companies. It is about understanding the intrinsic value that a diverse set of individuals bring to our organizations so everyone is included. {snip}

If language is to catch up with today’s broader focus of diversity, we should use terms that are clear and precise. The term “traditionally underrepresented minority” (TUM) can be used when referring to African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans. An alternative for people who object to “minority” or “people of color” is the acronym formed from the groups above–ALANA, used by some in higher education. Another appropriate term, which is broader in scope, is “traditionally underrepresented group” (TUG). TUG includes ethnic/racial groups, women, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender people, individuals with disabilities and veterans. Many organizations’ diversity efforts are focused on TUG.

To capture the broader and fully inclusive meaning of diversity that does not exist today, you can use a phrase created by marketing consultant Ernie Mills, which is “Person with Intrinsic Cultural Knowledge,” or PICK. This term communicates that someone’s cultural knowledge and understanding creates value for his or her company, whether those aspects of self are visible or invisible.

For example, since Mills is a U.S. Navy and Army National Guard veteran, he’s in a position to help companies build government business by sharing insights into how military families live and think. As a Latino, I may intrinsically bring an understanding of the ways that many Latinos live in the country, and thus help to shape company policy effectively. The same could be said of a Chinese person who, due to specific cultural insights, might be able to identify stumbling blocks to potential sales by illuminating how family elders influence decisions. The same holds true for individuals who are Generation Y or X, LGBT people or those with deeply held religious beliefs. PICK gets to the core value–diversity monetized by population segment.

Bottom line: Like all business leaders who strive to explain important concepts clearly, those of us who manage diversity must communicate in precise language–and educate others. Our level of precision may mark the difference between making sustainable progress or overseeing initiatives that lack traction. Language can support or hinder a company’s diversity strategy and, therefore, needs to evolve to remain relevant and garner organizational support.