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CHRIS KATTERJOHN: It's all about managing diversity

September 3, 2007

"Diversity" is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days.

The pair of words "diversity management" might be more to the point.

Diversity really is a fact of life. In terms of humankind, the world is made up of different kinds of people. And those differences go way beyond race, gender and ethnicity.

People come from different backgrounds, believe in different religions, and have different sexual preferences, for example. Some are physically handicapped or mentally impaired. Our differences are too numerous to enumerate.

That's the macro view. On the micro level, each of our personal worlds is changing more and more as we come in contact more frequently with people who are not the same as we are.

It's just the way things are-a natural result of a world getting smaller and of populations growing and becoming more mobile.

So the real issue is: How do we as individuals deal with that reality?

Let's be clear ... and honest. To varying degrees, we are all afraid or mistrustful-choose your own word, here-of people who are different from us. By virtue of our individual upbringings, it's a natural phenomenon.

Each of us has a choice as to how we deal with that fear. At one extreme, we can be threatened and paralyzed by it and let it control our interactions, never reaching outside our own little bubbles.

Or, we can see the fear for what it is, a feeling that for the most part emerges from stereotypes and ignorance. With that realization we can then allow ourselves to be educated and overcome that fear.

One of the ways to do that is to see the value of things we can learn from people who are different from us. By doing so, we learn the inherent value of diversity in both our personal and business lives. By taking advantage of diversity, we enrich ourselves and our work.

Hence, diversity management.

It's a concept that was introduced in a serious way in 2003 when WellPoint Inc. launched the Diversity Leadership Academy of Greater Indianapolis, a project done in conjunction with Atlanta-based American Institute for Managing Diversity.

The classes were led by AIMD's leader, Roosevelt Thomas, one of the world's foremost voices in the global diversity-management movement and author of a handful of books on the subject.

The basic tenets: Diversity is something to be embraced, not feared, not only because it enriches your life but also because it's good for business. The people and companies who best manage diversity are the ones that will succeed in the long run.

One simple premise: The broader your employee base, the more insight you have and the more strategies you can devise in product development or delivery to meet your customers' needs and expand your customer base.

That's good for business.

Here's another example. In my relatively new role as publisher of IBJ's sister publication Indiana Lawyer, I have learned that law firms are spending a great deal of time and energy on diversity management.

In addition to the altruistic reason that it's "the right thing to do," they are seeing it affect their business. Legal departments of large corporations like Eli Lilly and Co. and Wal-Mart are demanding that the outside firms they work with show a commitment to diversity and diversity management.

The subject is broad and deep. For example, not only do you have to make an effort to broaden your employee base, but you also have to create a culture that is inclusive so that everyone feels welcome to stay, too. It's big, but highly manageable.

In an effort to move the discussion forward, Indiana Lawyer has partnered with the Marion County Bar Association to present Diversity in Practice, an educational conference for attorneys, corporate counsel and HR professionals. It's coming up later this month. Visit www.theindianalawyer.comfor details.



Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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