When the National Automatic Merchandising Association asked me to serve on its newly formed Diversity Awareness Committee, I wasn’t sure what this group hoped to accomplish, or what I could do to help.
And, when I told the VT staff about the invitation, they insisted adamantly that the vending, coffee service and music and amusement industries have been ahead of the curve when it comes to inclusion. I was also asked what, exactly, is meant by “diversity?” Was I referring to equal-opportunity hiring? Tailoring product menus to appeal to a wide range of ethnic groups? Ease of entering the business? As it turns out, all of these issues represent organizational challenges for many companies, and many other kinds of challenges for individuals.
Diversity in the workplace is hardly a new topic. In a free-market economy, certain abilities and characteristics are rewarded, regardless of who exhibits them. No employer can afford to pass over willing and able candidates. No sales organization can afford to ignore potential customers.
All of this is true in the long run, on the large view. Historically, the United States has been remarkably successful at making a place at the table for successive waves of newcomers. But on the local and everyday level, things aren’t quite that simple. Diversity in the workplace (and in an industry) is an intricate subject, not an easy one to work through. The questions remain – is there a problem or an opportunity here? What are we up against, and what should we do right now?
For me, and I suppose for most people of my generation, the differences among people make life interesting and add beauty to the world. As my mother likes to say, “It’s what makes horse racing.” (I have since learned that it was Will Rogers who famously explained that “A difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries.”)
So why is diversity such a complicated topic in business? Perhaps because it intersects so many other topics, all of them crucial to continued success.
For example, we have been warned repeatedly against our natural tendency to hire people like ourselves. All of the books I’ve read on the subject say that this is a mistake. The argument is that an extravert should not automatically dismiss an introverted candidate, simply because their personality styles are different. It’s necessary to look at the job to be done and the characteristics that contribute to success. And it’s valuable to have access to a variety of perspectives and approaches when confronting new problems. If an employer isn’t careful, this hiring pitfall could be mistaken for “discrimination.”
Throughout history, small groups have had a tendency to regard outsiders with suspicion. However, experience in today’s wider and more varied world tends to overcome it – to some extent. Large cities like New York have made their multiculturalism a source of civic pride for a long time. Unfortunately, even in those cities, people still have a propensity for forming small groups based on some common characteristic, and those groups often exhibit the hostile clannishness of a medieval village. (I’ll resist the temptation to digress into politics, world peace or current events, and just say we’ve still got a long way to go in this department.)
The point here is that dealing with diversity, putting it to creative use, requires skills that can be learned. Professional sports teams have developed methods for taking individual characteristics and creating a group spirit or camaraderie. And, as I’m sure most of us have observed, any group will develop a “corporate culture.” One very important job for a manager is to shape that culture in a way that contributes to accomplishing the organization’s goals – not unlike the coach of a winning sports team.
The experts also have told us, time and again, to draw on the varied skills and talents of employees; this has been called “empowerment” and other things. Diverse teams bring high value to a company as different people in the organization, with different backgrounds, may be able to describe the preferences of others with similar backgrounds. Five minutes spent talking to them, with an open mind, may be as helpful as hiring a consultant.
And our industries always have been attractive to a certain kind of entrepreneur, regardless of his or her origins. Immigrants continue to launch operations that serve their communities. They can benefit from the experience of others who did something similar, a generation or two ago. And other operators can learn a great deal from them about specific selling skills, menu design and product sourcing.
For all these reasons, NAMA has undertaken to provide tools that operators can use to master the new dynamics of the workplace and the marketplace. I think this is a very worthwhile, and necessary, initiative. Expect to see educational sessions on diversity at next year’s NAMA Expos, and more emphasis on multiculturalism in the association’s ongoing personnel development courses like the Emerging Leaders program.
If all this is to make a real difference, we have to recognize that it can’t simply be handed over to the human resources and marketing departments. We no longer live in an insular marketplace. The vending and music and amusement business is part of worldwide economy, with competition coming from nearly every continent. Developing an awareness of the challenges and opportunities presented by a multicultural society is a critical part of repositioning the industry in the global retailing mainstream.
What cannot be denied is that we, and everyone else, now live in a world that has become very small indeed. Getting along in this world is the bare minimum; we need to learn how to prosper in it. And broadening our understanding and sympathy, learning to see through the eyes of others, is the way to begin. We must first be prepared to teach ourselves and others within our organization to value multiculturalism in our own workplace before we begin to understand the needs of our customers.
All the industrial nations are facing a demographic crisis brought on by falling birth rates and lengthening life spans. On one estimate, the United States will have 10 million more jobs than workers by 2010. I’ve talked to vending operators who believe that we’re already at that point, at least when it comes to finding route drivers!
A diverse workforce is a reflection of a changing world and marketplace. It has become clear that flexibility and creativity are keys to competitiveness for our industry to succeed in the future. More than ever before, we need to embrace diversity and become more open to change. These issues are not going away any time soon.