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Diversity stretching is key to landing first job

Norman M. Davis

If you are a college student seeking to be recruited into the professional work force, one of the most important qualities employers will be searching for is your ability to be a “team player.”

For most employers this means working effectively with their experienced workers who in most cases are older than student recruits. It also means working effectively with employees who may be of a different race, religion, ethnicity or socio-economic group than you.

Performing well in a diverse work setting has become a significant employment issue since 1987 when the Hudson Institute published their “Workforce 2000” report that made many projections of change in the composition of the U.S. work force up through the year 2000 and beyond. The most striking change prediction and one that many found hard to believe was the sharp decline in the proportion of white males that would be new entrants into the work force. The report projected that the traditional supply of white males would go from 47 percent in 1985 to only 15 percent of the new entrants into the work force by the year 2000. The reality of those predictions has come true in many organizations at various levels and in parts of the country today.

Most reasonably progressive organizations have begun to address issues brought on by a more diverse work force with various forms of diversity training.  It is important to note that these organizations are not limited to either the Fortune 500 or private sector. Public organizations have begun to look at such issues as the effectiveness of their social, psychological and other public services. In many instances, psychological treatment approaches and theories were developed with only white male clients in mind.  

This dilemma caused many social organizations to evaluate the effectiveness of their services and even to recognize that they excluded some diverse potential clients and markets. Given the competitive and economic challenges faced by public organizations, this dilemma spotlighted new opportunities. Furthermore, the demand from excluded public sector markets and the need for quality service simply pointed out that failure to address this dilemma did not make sense. The importance of acquiring skills in valuing and managing diversity has revealed dilemmas of challenge, possibility and opportunity in most businesses and organizations.

Neither have historically black colleges and universities (HCBUs) been exempted from diversity dilemmas and responsibility. Among the many virtues of HBCUs is to provide caring support and nurturing to black students who often report these ingredients missing from their experience at white colleges. The HBCUs now face the dilemma and challenge of convincing black students that they must learn to value and manage diversity.

While black students seem ready for any challenge that will improve their chances for landing jobs and experiencing previously denied successful career opportunities, there is not an abundance of diversity courses available on the HBCU’s campuses.

The challenge for all college students is to understand not only the ethical reasons, but also the business reasons for valuing and managing diversity in preparation for work. They must understand and believe that it can impact communications, teamwork, individual’s creativity, leadership capability, trust, loyalty and therefore overall organizational effectiveness.

As the private and public sectors make gains in each of these areas through pressing their diversity initiatives, organizations can actually improve their productivity, quality and other results through these efforts. The big question becomes how to get the most from these advantages.

While the preceding questions have hung over U.S. organizations, many have begun to look to colleges and universities to provide them with students who are more culturally aware and capable of participating in and leading a diverse work force.  The “high flyer” white male who works well only with “guys” like his fraternity brother, will be a smaller proportion of the entrants into the work force and may not be hotly recruited by the wise organization of the future. Yet, the white male who can work well with anyone will continue to be a premium value to an organization.

Colleges and universities can give students a decided advantage by helping them to be ready for the diverse work force of the 21st century. Students perform well in job interviews and get off to quick, confident starts on new jobs when they have had some personal understanding and experience with people who are different than they are.

This is true for all aged individuals whether their difference is age, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, ability, organizational status or professional differences. Fortunately for employers, business schools and undergraduate schools have begun to seriously address these issues.

There are some specific things the enlightened ambitious student will want to do on their own or with help from their college or university. These things can make a difference in the effectiveness one experiences during their adult working life. Let’s call these things “personal stretching tips.”  

• The next time you are at a reception or an event, force yourself to spend time with people you may normally avoid (come on admit it, most of us do this — although it may be unconsciously). This may mean talking with older people; older men; blacks; whites; Latinos; Asians; a person in a wheelchair; whomever. Have some topics and questions in mind to discuss. The chances are good they seldom talk with people like you and would find it interesting.  Both of you might even learn something from each other.

• Ask yourself what groups of people do you think you are superior to (yes, I know you don’t think that way and neither does anyone else — sure). The next time you talk with someone from that group, keep good eye contact with them and listen intently to what they have to say as if it might change your life — and it may. Do the same thing with groups that you may feel are superior to you. (Examples of such groups might be people with graduate degrees; the faculty; certain majors; people from the suburbs; people from the city; athletes; non-athletes; the Greeks; the polo team; the poor; the wealthy, and so forth.)

• The next time you have a chance, place yourself in a situation where you are the only one there like yourself or only one of a few. Examine how you feel and what you can do to make yourself feel more comfortable. And repeat this exercise at least twice a year. Examine any insights you gain as well as any growth in comfort from one experience to the next.

• Occasionally skim the newspaper and magazine articles that talk about people and cultures that are different from you and your culture. Imagine what it would be like to work with them on a team or for you to work for them or have them work for you.

• When watching television, wear reality lenses and remember that most groups and their characteristics, even the ones that you belong to are often exaggerated.

Norman M. Davis has studied behavioral management and organizational management for the past 25 years.