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Diversity in the Workplace: Are there Lessons to Learn from the University of Illinois Springfield?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nkechi Onwuameze
September 14, 2018

What I found after a quick glance at the University of Illinois Springfield senior leadership team was quite fascinating! The representation of the senior leadership team defies prevailing record of diversity in terms of racial minorities and women in top executive positions. Whether achieved consciously or unconsciously, this is a record-breaking accomplishment!

It is clear that “diversity” has become the latest HR buzzword several organizations clamor to adopt. These organizations ostentatiously display their diversity plans on their websites, create a diversity unit to manage their diversity efforts, and hire a Chief Diversity Officer to be the point person to promote, achieve, and manage a diverse workforce for the organization. In fact, if you are a minority employee that lands a job in an “un-diverse” organization and you don’t hear the “golden D” word, plan for an emergency exit. Run as quickly as you can. They certainly don’t get it!

At the University of Illinois Springfield, six out of the nine senior management team listed on their website are women, and three out of the nine appear to be non-White, interesting right? Well, if this institution is getting it right (as far as diversity is concerned) in the selection of their senior management team, a curious observer may ask how did it happen, is it a coincidence? How did they achieve this in an era where company leaders are quick to suggest that the lack of diversity in their organization is because they can’t find minority applicants with the required skills to fill vacant positions? That deficiency oriented mind-set makes it difficult to self-evaluate and learn from best practices to improve workplace diversity. The first step in addressing any problem, is to acknowledge that there is a problem, and then identify ways to solve it, including learning from best practices. Achieving diversity remains a big issue because several organizations have not chosen the open approach to resolving the issue.  The hiring pattern of many organizations continue to be shrouded in secrecy.

University of Illinois Springfield

Source: University of Illinois Springfield Website: https://www.uis.edu/about/leadership/

So how do companies that lack diversity begin? The steps below provide some insight:

  • Acknowledging the Issue
    Almost anyone that takes a look at the University of Illinois Springfield senior management team will ask was it consciously planned? While only the hiring team and the Board of Trustee of the University may be capable of answering that question, the simple message is, “yes, it can be done.” It is not impossible to achieve a diverse workforce and we can start by first rejecting the “we can’t find them” notion and start creating the culture to attract and retain minority employees. There is a popular quote by a psychologist, Dr. Phil which states, “you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge,” which implies that without acknowledging you are facing the challenge of achieving diversity, you can’t make progress.
  • Taking Inventory
    Taking inventory of who we have is another important step in creating the atmosphere to achieve diversity. A critical examination of what the hiring pattern of the organization is and a review of record of minority employees are important at this stage. This is because we can’t create a lasting solution in a vacuum without self-examination. The following questions are important to consider at this stage: Who are our employees? What is our hiring pattern? What is our approach to identifying candidates?
  • Create a Positive Culture
    The culture of an organization goes a long way to determine the workforce diversity. An organizational culture that fails to recognize differences will ultimately lead to some employees feeling excluded. The quick glance at the University of Illinois Springfield may tell a good story about its diversity achievement today, but this record can easily revere if these minority employees feel excluded. The only way to prevent this is to build a positive culture of support. A positive culture improves morale of employees that bolsters retention.
  • Leaving Room for Improvement
    It is a false notion to think just because you have reached your desired number of minority employees, you can check the box off and relax. There should always be room for improvement which means continuous learning and discovery of best practices. Be ready to track your progress and continuously ask, how can we improve, or how can we learn from others to make things better. Creating the metrics and working towards achieving those are important, but recognizing that you can improve even after reaching your goal is key to ensuring that you break the cycle of low workforce diversity. According to O’Brien, K., Scheffer, M., & Nes, V. (2015O’Brien, Scheffer, Van Der Lee and Nes (2015) “appointing a diverse group of new employees is only half of the battle: the other challenge is keeping them.”

While the University of Illinois Springfield stands out with the record of diversity of their senior management team, there continues to be opportunities for learning from within and outside the institution. Reaching the desired goal is one thing, maintaining it requires creating a positive culture within the organization to motivate minority employees that have been historically marginalized.


Author: Nkechi Onwuameze works for the Illinois Board of Higher Education and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. She earned a Ph.D. in sociology of education at the University of Iowa. Her research interest include educational inequality, gender discrimination in the workplace, workplace diversity. [email protected] or Twitter: @Nkobis

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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