Confessions of a Director of Diversity

The Job's Hard Enough Without the Scrutiny and Hyper-Criticism

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Tiffany Warren
Tiffany R. Warren
Although I have never visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., I have read that as you walk out of the museum there is a plaque that reads "Together We Can Accomplish So Much." Unbeknownst to the general advertising industry, "working together" is very much what many of those charged with diversifying all levels and segments of the industry have chosen to do. Egos and propriety aside, sharing best practices as well as the ups and downs of this role has become a welcome respite from the quiet storm that seems to rage around the issue of diversity in advertising.

Since the New York Commission of Human Rights focused its spotlight on 16 agencies large and small, any chance of launching programs without intense scrutiny burned off under the white-hot glare. Just as I did in "Why One Black Creative Walked Away," I have created a composite director of diversity in order to share truthfully the input from mis compadres who are on the front lines of the war for diverse talent.

Let's call her Nala M. Tomkins. She's a force to be reckoned with and is not above sharing the down-and-dirty reality of "moving the mountain" that the lack of diversity has created within advertising agencies across America. She has spent her career totally devoted to diversity management. She has worked on the non-profit side as a director of an internship program that places students of color in Fortune 500 companies for summer internships and co-op/work study. She spent a brief time managing diversity recruitment for a large financial institution but found it too restrictive and left soon after for a challenging but incredibly promising position at a top 15 advertising agency.

In her office, Nala has the first four lines of a poem, titled "Two Kinds of People," by Ella Wheeler Wilcox taped to the top of her laptop.
There are two kinds of people on earth to-day;
Just two kinds of people, no more I say.
No; the two kinds of people on earth I mean
Are the people who lift and the people who lean.
Nala knows that at the core of what she does is the ability to lift the culture of her agency to the "true meaning of its creed" developed from the input of employees from different backgrounds, generations and orientations. In a perfect world, most companies have a structure or initiative in place to ensure that its employee base reflects its diverse customer base. To service cultural diversity better, companies enroll its senior managers in proactive training programs to ensure that its workforce mirrors its consumers. In her case, Nala often sees a disconnect between the senior managers who make these hiring decisions and the employees who are a part of "mandatory" training programs that have been established to enforce the policies set forth because of government or client intervention. The talent departments of advertising agencies can have the best intentions but if the middle managers and junior employees don't support the initiatives, directors of diversity will never hit the cultural sweet spot they're seeking.

The biggest hurdle Nala faces on the job is perception vs. reality. The following are the two biggest perceptions Nala and diversity practitioners like her fight to overcome every day.

Diversity initiatives favor black people. FALSE
A proper diversity initiative favors only the importance of creating a balanced culture that incorporates the viewpoints of people who don't think alike. Focusing just on one culture is exactly what provided advertising's detractors with ammunition in the first place. Sometimes it is difficult to hire someone who does not look, act and speak like you. If responsible for hiring, how many times have you heard "We want another Amanda or John for the position"?

Diversity initiatives are a burden and unnecessary. TRUE/FALSE
There are plenty of managers who are creative, responsive and tolerant. Unfortunately there are plenty who have little to no interpersonal skills or exposure to different cultures. If managed properly, creating a diverse workforce can become an agency's greatest strength. If it's not done right, it will seem like its biggest burden. Either way, it's going to be work. Employees -- at all levels -- will have to pull together and holistically reinforce the sort of attitudes and atmosphere that bring about a best-place-to-work culture for everyone in the office.

Maintaining and growing diversity initiatives is not easy and it is not just about hosting "ethnic days" in the company cafeteria.

What can add to the burden is the hostility directed at diversity practitioners when the numbers of employees of color slips by a percentage point or another person of color leaves an agency for better career opportunities and for reasons unrelated to culture. People leave companies. Period. But the scrutiny placed on employees of color is racist and unnecessary.

In a time when we have one of the most compelling candidates running for the president of the United States, race matters again and has made its way back into conversations from the living room to the boardroom. We have an opportunity to uplift the work of the Nalas of the world as we help each other continue the work of Martin Luther King Jr. Let's not waste it.
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