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February 10, 2016 | Joan Fulton and John Foltz

Enhancing a Diverse Business Environment

How bringing in new ideas can be win-win for employees and the company

To say that we live and operate in a global market is nothing new to any of us. Where our businesses were once able to homogeneously operate, the environment is now in the midst of diversity. The needs and wants of our customers, both direct and secondary, are changing and with it the mix of products and services that you are delivering.  

The extent to which diversity is on the “radar screen” of your business varies across the feed and grain industry. For some this is at the forefront of your decision making and you have active programs in place. For others it is more of a “back burner” issue. No matter what, diversity is becoming more important in our changing business environment and important to incorporate into your planning. 

Discussions of diversity can have positive as well as negative connotations. These discussions can foster ideas of new opportunities and result in positive change. However, at other times these discussions can bring up thoughts of imposing new people and new practices on our business. It is a natural response that people are concerned these changes will disrupt the culture in your business that is working very well right now. No doubt when the conversation turns to diversity, someone will note that we must be “politically correct” which further stirs up negative connotations associated with diversity.

In this article we intend to explore diversity from the perspective of how you can make it a win-win for your business. We will consider two areas of diversity for your business: diversity of your workforce and diversity of your customer base and thus the products and services you deliver.

Diversity of your work force

Today’s workplace is changing. The workforce of many agribusinesses has often been predominately white male, with some stereotypical exceptions such as women in clerical and some accounting positions. Many of you have already embraced a diverse workforce.  There are many opportunities out there as you move to diversify your workforce. With a more diverse workforce you can benefit from an expanded pool of talent. Once you start looking around you will find that there is a lot of great talent out there, often among groups in the population that you had not previously been thinking about. Another benefit stems from diversity of thought. As you bring in people with different backgrounds, they will have new and creative ideas. Many time, these are ideas that can solve problems your business was “stumped” with before, ideas that can serve the needs of a new and expanding customer base for your business. The potential workforce may be much larger than you have previously considered. Perhaps you have not thought of the women in your community as potential resources for your firm.

We recently heard a great story of how embracing diversity resulted in a positive outcome. A representative from a seed business noted that one of their top salespeople had a spouse who worked as a salesperson, in an adjacent sales region, for a competitor seed company. While this arrangement had enabled the couple to both secure jobs and keep a happy marriage, it is not difficult to imagine that it became a challenging situation before very long. At the point in the story the representative noted definitively — “we figured out how to solve that problem — we just hired the spouse to work for us!” In this situation the outcome was a win-win (except perhaps for the company that lost the spouse). The couple has a much happier home life and that leads to better work performance. This company now has two productive employees. Furthermore, since it is more challenging for members of a dual career household to find jobs (since they need two jobs), this couple is much less likely to move away from the company.

Diversifying your workforce is not something that will happen instantaneously; rather it will be a process. The following steps can be important as you develop the plan for your business organization. 

Team environment: Foster a positive team environment in your workplace. Promoting a competitive environment in the workplace may only serve to accentuate problems of merging different cultures into your workplace. Rather, promoting teamwork allows you to have an environment where you can celebrate differences and point out the complementary aspects of differences. In other words, promote the environment where “working as a team, the outcome is greater than sum of the parts.”

Recruiting: As you recruit new employees show that you are serious about both diversity and getting the best people for your position. Create a position description and advertise your open positions. Pay attention to the language you use in the position descriptions making sure that you are sending explicitly as well as subtle messages that you want a diverse pool of applicants. Think about a broad array of where you can advertise your open positions. When creating your position descriptions, focus your thinking on the skills that you need the employee to have in order to achieve the results you need from that position. In this way you are more apt to be broader in your thinking and in your mind consider some different people that you might not have thought of before. Prepare yourself and everyone who will be meeting with candidates during the application and interview process to be open-minded, and to truly be looking for the best people. You need to set the stage that you are definitively seeking the best people and that you have an open and welcoming workplace to come into.

Hire the best people: The conclusion of the recruiting process results in hiring decisions. Make great hiring decisions to get the best people. As you seriously select the best people you will expand the diversity of your workforce. When you make offers to people from a diverse background, it will be important you genuinely communicate you are a diverse and friendly place to work, because you want them to accept your offer and join your team.

Retention: The literature shows there will be “bumps in the road” when it comes to diversifying your workforce. Initially when you bring in new people, you are creating change in an environment where people had felt comfortable. Change is inherently uncomfortable (or perceived to be uncomfortable by many). It is a natural human reaction to resist change. This resistance to the change can manifest itself in many different ways — often associated with making the new person feel unwelcomed, not wanted, held to different (higher) standards, etc. We all know of the phase of initiation for the new kid on the block — and that initiation can be more or less severe — and often with diverse individuals it is more severe. Preparing for this ahead of time can put your organization in a position to combat it before it happens. Here are a few strategies:

  • Highlight the individual’s strengths — especially to key audiences. For example if you have a group of customers who are “traditional” — you could communicate with them ahead of time (weekly email; website; newsletter) letting them know about your new associate and the strengths he/she brings to both your organization as well as the customers your organization serves. Another way to think of this is that you are validating the new employee.
  • As manager, be watchful for the “initiation of the new kid on the bock” actions and step in (when appropriate) to remind the offenders of inappropriate actions. Equally as important is to communicate with the new employee that you hear and see what is going on, that you recognize this is part of the initiation process and that he/she has your full support. Continue to monitor and it will get better if you set the positive example.
  • Evaluate your physical workplace as well as your policies and procedures. You may be sending college students out to the fields to scout crops as part of an internship program. This is great, but have you considered how these interns will have access to restroom facilities? This is one area where little consideration was given when the summer college student interns were all male. However, both males and females need access to appropriate restroom facilities. Your policies and procedures may state things like working hours. Take a look at these and evaluate if there are areas where you could be more flexible. For example, if your workforce includes parents who have children that need to be dropped off and picked up from daycare, are there areas where you can offer flex time for employees? We are not suggesting that you decrease your expectations for your employees, rather just look for those places where flexibility can be a win-win.

Build on past successes: As you successfully retain employees who diversify your workplace, it will be easier to recruit and hire people who bring additional diversity to your organization. 

Diversity of your and products and customer base

Many of you have already changed the mix of products and services, and your customer base that you are working with. Today’s consumers are looking for food products with many unique characteristics and specifications. These include things like: guaranteed non-GMO; organic; cage-free; free range, to name a few. One response from the agricultural community has been to diminish these comments by noting that “these consumers are crazy; there is nothing scientific about these demands.” However, this can be a business opportunity. If you can creatively figure out ways to meet the needs, wants and desires of consumers for products in a different shape/form (i.e., organic, non-GMO) then you will gain customers resulting in increased profitability for you. Thus, you can turn a challenge (change that is uncomfortable) into a business opportunity for increased profitability. 

Examine each change as an opportunity. Think of this as the “glass is half full and not half empty!” How can this be turned into an opportunity to make customers happy and for our organization to earn more profit? Remember, if you can adapt more quickly than your competitor, you can reap the additional business and profits.

As you diversify your workforce, you will be in a better position to respond to these changing business opportunities. You will now have an employee base that is thinking more broadly. Several recent books cover this topic, and might merit reading and/or inclusion in your management library: The Diversity and Inclusion Handbook by Sondra Thiederman; Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji; and The Inclusion Dividend: Why Investing in Diversity and Inclusion Pays Off by Mark Kaplan.


The quote from General George Patton, “If everyone is thinking the same then someone isn’t thinking” provides useful insight. Successfully embracing diversity in your business will result from you focusing on the benefits of change, the benefits of new people who think differently and identify creative solutions to your business challenges. Often in business there is a first mover advantage. We suggest that embracing diversity is one of the cases where you can benefit from being a first mover.

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