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Diversity is good for business

Jason Hashimoto
EEO Programs Manager
San Francisco Public Utilities Commission
San Francisco, California

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on whether the admissions policy of the University of Michigan is constitutional. Affirmative Action is a topic about which people have strong opinions, as evidenced by the recent flurry of talk show discussions, articles, and debates on the subject. Because individuals hold such strong opinions, the debate is unlikely to change, regardless of how the Supreme Court rules. From a business perspective, opinions about the methodologies used to achieve diversity are not as relevant as the fact that diversity is essential for good business.

Let me start by saying that I love my job. This is not a statement that one hears often. But I can truly say that as the EEO Programs Manager for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, I love my job. As an attorney, I previously defended clients and worked for companies that saw diversity and EEO laws as obstacles to their businesses. What impresses me about the SFPUC is its belief that having a workforce that is diverse and providing that workforce with a working environment free of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation makes for a better product. Further, the SFPUC puts this belief into action through the demonstrated commitment of its employees, managers, and leaders at all levels.

Most arguments regarding diversity discuss fairness and justice and the need to right past wrongs of oppression and discrimination. Yes, diversity is good and nice and just. Those are qualities that appeal to the idealist in each of us. But many of us have business responsibilities, too, and are reassured to understand that diversity is profitable. Diversity makes good business sense. Diversity helps the bottom line.

A diverse workforce enables businesses to serve their customers better
The SFPUC serves one of the most diverse customer bases in the world. Understanding our customers, their needs, and how to communicate with them helps us to provide outstanding service. Having a workforce that reflects the diversity of our customers enables our organization to meet our goal of outstanding service.

Our customers speak many different languages and come from many different cultures with different beliefs, customs, and ways of interacting. Having a diverse workforce where our employees speak many different languages and understand differences in beliefs, customs, and ways of interacting helps the organization to better serve our customers. Beyond the day-to-day communications with our customers, a diverse workforce helps us strategically, as well. One example that comes to mind is a brochure that was created to target our Chinese-speaking customers. The brochure was sent to an outside vendor for translation. Technically, the brochure was translated into Chinese correctly. However, when one of our employees reviewed the translation, he confirmed that the language was technically accurate, but also opinioned that the tone was too modern and would be offensive to the audience we were attempting to reach. Further market research concluded that the employee was correct and a potential debacle was averted.

A diverse workforce enables employers to utilize their employees better
Like most employers, our work and our work product is entirely dependent on the efforts of our employees. It is imperative that the best employees are recruited and retained and that employees’ productivity is maximized.

Studies have shown that diversity improves recruitment of new employees and results in higher retention of employees. Diversity results in decreased complaints and litigation. Diversity also results in lower absenteeism. Diversity improves the culture of the organization. When employees are comfortable in their work environment and feel they are treated fairly, more employee time is spent performing the job duties that they are paid to do.

Further, diversity helps organizations to think beyond the status quo, which leads to more innovative thinking and new and better ways of doing things. An organization that accepts racial, ethnic, and gender diversity is also likely to welcome people whose education or experience leads to different and better ways of thinking. A workplace that truly capitalizes on the unique talents that each employee has is one that flourishes and prospers.

A diverse workforce enables businesses to create the best possible products and services
I’ve heard comments that diversity is not as important in science and engineering as it is in other areas. Their reasoning is that 2 + 2 = 4 no matter what one’s race, gender, age, etc.

I was very impressed with an article I read by Dr. William A. Wulf, President of the National Academy of Engineering, discussing the importance of diversity in engineering. He stated that the quality of engineering is affected by diversity (or lack of it). He offers his perspective that engineering is a profoundly creative profession. He also points out that psychological literature tells us that creativity is not something that just happens; rather, it is the result of making unexpected connections between things we already know. Hence, creativity depends on our life experiences. People from different backgrounds experience a different world. Each has different life experiences. Without diversity the life experiences that are brought to an engineering problem are limited. Without diversity, the range of possible solutions to an engineering problem is smaller. As a consequence, the best engineering solution—what he calls the most “elegant” engineering solution—might not be found.

Mr. Wulf’s argument is a profound one that applies to any industry. All businesses must look for the best solutions to problems in order to be competitive. Those solutions must satisfy certain constraints whether they are physical, organizational, economical, etc. Having people from diverse backgrounds allows the problem to be viewed in many different ways. A diverse workforce affords employers the opportunity to find the best solutions.

This year the SFPUC will embark on one of its biggest projects ever—the Hetch Hetchy water system will be rebuilt. This water system carries water across 167 miles from the Sierra foothills to the San Francisco Bay Area. The diversity of our workforce is one of our greatest strengths. The benefits that result from our diversity will ensure the success of this project and the operation of the SFPUC.

To reach Jason Hashimoto, call (415) 554-1699 or send e-mail to jhashimo@puc.sf.ca.us or Jhashimoto@sfwater.org.