When you ask people what defines diversity in a business setting, the things that often come to mind are race, religion, gender and age. While an obvious mix of these characteristics in your personnel pool is the most observable measure to claim diversity in your workforce, these descriptors just barely scratch the surface of what truly makes an organization diverse. More importantly, they do not address the critical topics of how diversity is managed and how it impacts business. The trend toward increased diversity in the American workforce isn’t good or bad, it’s just the way it is and the way it will be in the future. What will allow organizations to engage their diverse workforces and thrive amidst this demographic shift is simple. RESPECT.

Any discussion of respect, at least within the context of diversity, must start with a simple understanding of the term. Respect is an ongoing behavior pattern that promotes increased awareness and acceptance of differences in individuals’ beliefs, styles and backgrounds, as well as their physical, ancestral, geographic or socio-economic makeup.  While you may think that a roomful of 50-year-old white males is not particularly diverse, once you look below the surface into political beliefs, favorite sports, educational backgrounds, sexual orientation, and (the big one in Northeast Ohio) East side vs. West side, you’ll find literally hundreds of characteristics that make many of them completely unique. Respect is the process and vehicle that allows unique people to engage and work with other unique people in a manner that benefits all.

How do we define a respectful work environment?

Contrary to what many believe, a respectful workplace is not color blind, A respectful organization recognizes, embraces and celebrates differences. It actively seeks diversity, not just tolerates it.  More importantly, it promotes equity, encourages dialogue and absolutely insists upon fairness and civility for all of its employees.

Why should you care?

Other than the obvious legal and social reasons to create and promote a respectful workplace  (i.e. litigation avoidance, community alignment and political correctness) there is a litany of good business reasons too. Perhaps the single most compelling reason lies in the fact that attracting the workforce of tomorrow will require it. As the population ages and baby-boomers retire, competition to attract and retain talented, educated workers will make the movie Gladiator look like a walk in the park. The U.S. Department of Labor recently estimated that by 2010, there will be 10 million more skilled job openings in the U.S. than qualified people to fill those jobs. Compounding that challenge is the fact that tomorrow’s star leaders and performers will likely not look, think or act like today’s stars. Employers must prepare now to give themselves a competitive edge. Workplace culture will be that edge and one of the key cultural variables will be respect.

One local company is leveraging this better than most. Key Corporation’s leadership was recently recognized by DiversityInc, an online portal and national magazine, as number 18 on its list of the country’s top 50 companies for diversity. Key CEO and Chairman Henry L. Meyer, III on Key’s website states that, “Inclusiveness is a bridge between our workplace and our marketplace. It helps our businesses grow.”

Any doubt about the value of inclusiveness was dispelled when DiversityInc’s co-founder Luke Visconti pointed out in a recent CNN interview that “the 2005 Top 50 companies for diversity earned 12.8 percent more than the Standard & Poor’s 500 over the last 10 years.”  He added, “If you want to work for a progressive company that’s more likely to do well for its shareholders, take a look at the list.” Key is in good company on the list with Altria (parent company of Philip Morris and Kraft Foods), Turner Broadcasting and Citigroup at numbers one through three respectively.

How do you create a respectful workplace?

It starts with leadership. Leaders in respectful organizations encourage employees to intentionally engage those who are different; to institutionalize the curiosity to explore differences and to refrain from damaging, judgmental and exclusive behaviors. Fostering respect is not a program or project. It is a way of life that must be clearly defined, communicated and modeled from the top down.

Here’s a quick primer on how to get started:

  1. The CEO and senior leadership must define “respect” and articulate the types of behaviors that their organization embraces (as well as those it will not tolerate).
  2. Respect, as a cultural variable, should be front and center during any discussion on workforce planning and hiring/retention strategies.
  3. Assign a senior-level point person—a companywide culture champion. This person must have the implicit support of the CEO and board of directors. He or she must also have the clout to set agendas and the budget to get things done.
  4. Create measurable, respect-related objectives. These might be recruitment and retention numbers, results of employee climate surveys or training/education targets.  While population characteristics can be misleading, the “mix” within the organization should roughly mirror the populations in the markets and customers served.
  5. Hold people accountable. Add behavioral metrics to everyone’s performance appraisal… and make them count for something. If there is no tangible reason for managers and associates to change behaviors, most will not.

As with any other change, a shift in organizational values and behavior patterns takes skill, determination and clear communication. Creating a culture of respect must start with a plan. If you don’t know how to begin, hire a consultant to help you formulate strategy and deliverables. Assign timelines and resources. Include tracking and measurement tools.

What are the chances of success?

The creation of a workforce that encourages respectful behaviors toward people who are different is not merely a project, initiative or program de jour — it is a long-term shift in organizational values and behaviors. And while respect as a concept is simple, institutionalizing it typically takes a long time and is not accomplished solely through slogans on coffee cups and banners or employee contests. It can, however, be achieved through commitment, stamina, crystal-clear communication policies and leaders who walk their talk. This much is clear: Given what we know about the increasing diversity and size of tomorrow’s labor pool, choosing to do nothing would likely be the riskiest decision of all.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published March, 2010.