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Is that diverse employee real — or a robot surrogate?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Simma Lieberman

Several years ago, my firm conducted an organizational assessment for the president of a mid-size firm who wanted his company to have a more diverse workforce. We helped his executive team revamp the company's recruiting and hiring strategy to increase the diversity of new hires. 

He met his hiring goals and, although we suggested he build a long-term inclusion strategy, he felt he was "done." We didn’t hear from him for two years. Then, we did.

Related: Drive out bias, learn from Uber's mistakes

"We’re not getting value from the diversity in our workforce," he said. "We spent all that money and time recruiting, hiring and training new people and they’re either leaving or not contributing. I think some of them have retired in place, even the ones that are under 30," he complained.

His call made me recall the Bruce Willis movie "Surrogates." In the movie, people in the future stay home and interact with the world through remote controlled humanoid robots. Willis is an FBI agent who sends his FBI surrogate to solve a murder, until he realizes that he needs to personally be involved. He leaves the house and takes his true self to work to find the killer.

I told the executive that his organization was suffering from Robot Surrogate Syndrome. They come to work but their minds are at home watching TV, at the gym or updating their LinkedIn profile. His mistake was in thinking that just having diversity in the workplace without doing anything else would automatically equal inclusion and innovation.

Here are five causes of Robot Surrogate Syndrome and possible cures:

1. The corporate culture has not changed to be more inclusive of new employees from diverse backgrounds, experiences or workstyles. People who are different than the historical "norm" often feel stifled. It’s too hard to contribute new ideas or ways to solve problems.

Solution: Create a diverse team to examine old cultural norms and identify ways in which the culture needs to adapt to be more inclusive. If most informal networking or client meetings are on the golf course, identify ways more people can be involved. Offer free golf lessons to everyone who is able to play and add other informal networking events that include more people. Ask people for suggestions. This alone will make people engage.

2. There is no formal strategy or process for making people feel welcome and included when they join your company. If new employees feel awkward and uncomfortable, they will be hesitant to contribute and lose interest in the organization.

Solution: Create a process to integrate new employees into the organization. Train a group of employees to be welcome ambassadors, who take new people "under their wing,” introduce them to others, take them out to lunch and give new people what they need to be successful.

3. Employees feel pressure to conform and think like everyone else. Genius and creativity is wasted when employees are not encouraged to "be different." They shut down.

Solution: Be conscious of your behavior and the way you solicit ideas. Learn new ways to access and be open to diversity of thought and experiences. Acknowledge creative thinking and listen before you respond. You may hear an idea for breakthrough innovation that you would have rejected.

4. People feel stagnant and stuck. There is no encouragement to learn new skills or opportunities to interact with people from other functions. While their "humanoid robots" are going through the motions of working at your company, their true selves are looking for new jobs and going on interviews during their lunch hour.

Solution: Stop thinking about people in terms of their position or function. Think of the value they bring to the whole organization. Provide opportunities for them to move into other areas and sustain their interest in the company. Get people together from different functions to solve a problem or design and create a prototype for a new product.

5. You unconsciously give more weight to the ideas and recommendations of people who are most like you. When this happens, people "not from your group" think it’s a waste of time to participate. They hang back and take phone calls from your competitors who are scanning profiles on LinkedIn.

Solution: Solicit input from people in different ways. Try asking for input in a way that hides the identity of participating employees. You might be surprised when names are revealed who suggested the product, service or process you favorite. Be ready to widen your perspective and let go of a bias.

Simma Lieberman, internationally known as "The Inclusionist" is a diversity and inclusion and culture change consultant, speaker and coach.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.

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