Campus & Community

Diversity dialogue

4 min read

Panelists discuss how to make inclusion a central part of workplace culture

On the surface, the desire for diversity in the office might seem to contradict the need for organizational unity. But Harvard’s associate chief diversity officer said he believes a diverse workforce is actually good for business.

“Everything we know about diversity is that it leads to greater productivity, greater success rates, greater creativity around the workplace,” said Norm Jones, associate chief diversity officer in the Office of the Assistant to the President for Institutional and Diversity Equity. “Our efforts [at Harvard] around affirming identity are valuable for recruiting and retaining people.”

Jones spoke about that value during a panel discussion Thursday titled “Diversity Across the Spectrum: Further Reflections on the Continuum of Inclusion.” The discussion was part of a broader series of initiatives focused on advancing staff diversity within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), and was attended by FAS faculty and staff. It included practical advice from a panel of experts on interacting within a diverse workforce.

According to Jones, managers send important signals to employees by using inclusive language on signs, forms, and in conversation.

“How we socialize in the workplace underscores who does and doesn’t matter,” he said.

Supervisors should embrace differences in their offices and encourage open conversations, said Emelyn dela Pena, the College’s assistant dean of student life for equity, diversity, and inclusion.

“We bring our whole selves into the workplace,” said dela Pena, who moderated the talk. “Opening up a conversation [about differences] creates an atmosphere where I feel I matter enough to talk about myself in this environment.”

Indeed, conversations can get awkward and reflect outdated attitudes. Panelist David Stevens, executive director of the Massachusetts Councils on Aging, said that in the future, people are likely to work into their 70s.

“How many of you think 75 is too old for sex, or that an old person is not good enough for the workforce?” he asked. “You need to check yourself any time you say something like that.”

It also will be important to accommodate people of different capabilities. Older workers are just one example, Stevens said, but an example who prove it can be done. He pointed to a Harvard Business School (HBS) study showing a team of older workers who initially finished tasks slower than the younger ones, but after several simple job accommodations, caught up to and surpassed their juniors.

Similarly, simple and thoughtful steps can make a difference to transgender employees and job applicants, said Van Bailey, director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life at Harvard. Access to gender-neutral restrooms and application forms is respectful. So is referring to a person by the gender preferred he or she prefers ― even if that causes uneasiness.

“A couple of minutes of your discomfort is nothing compared to my discomfort for a lifetime,” Bailey said.

Building a diverse and inclusive environment is a lifelong endeavor, Jones said. “You never arrive, you never hit a ceiling, and it’s work we all have to do every day. … You can’t just check the diversity box.”

Mary Thomas, director of disability services in the Office of the Assistant to the President for Institutional and Diversity Equity, said diversity is a key to the future of the productive workplace.

“It’s all of the people who aren’t in the room [today], making it matter to them, that’s the trick,” Thomas said. “We have to figure out how get new faces at the table.”

Andrea Kelton-Harris, senior human resources consultant at FAS, introduced the panel, which was held at the Forum Room at the Lamont Library.

The diversity initiative within FAS includes recruitment efforts, the Career Plus career coaching and competency initiative aimed at building a diverse talent pipeline, Year Up internships that offers six-month stints to talented urban young adults, the Administrative Fellowship Program, and the FAS Diversity Dialogue Series.

Chris Ciotti, associate dean for human resources, said that future dialogue series speakers will include David Livermore, an authority on cultural intelligence; Mark E. Fowler, managing director of programs for the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding; and Amy C. Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at HBS.