Flexibility: The Secret Sauce For Diversity & Inclusion Leaders in 2009

By Meryl Rosenthal

As corporate leaders head back to their desks in early January, after celebrating holidays (albeit more conservatively in many cases) they will ease back to a hard set of facts; looking in the eyes of their managers and employees and getting them energized and focused on their respective business agenda. Not to be a pessimist but no doubt a lofty goal, given a record high number of distractions resulting from a tough & dipping economy.

The economy, as we all know, hasn't simply resulted in job loss but notable personal financial loss; one that won't be recoverable for years to come. So imagine, the demeanor of those returning to work in January - and where their heads and hearts are focused. And, (not to be totally depressing and cause you to skip the rest of this) compounding this double dose of distraction is what will hit the average employee - at some point in his/her life cycle - having or adopting a child, dealing with a sick relative or one's own health issues, coping with a return to home graduate, supporting a relative who needs emotional and financial means.


With that said, leaders take pause. This is your workforce. What will you be doing differently in 2009 as you lead and manage a reduced, stressed workforce. Engagement, advancement and retention will certainly be top of mind objectives. What tools and resources will you deploy, despite budget cuts, that will help you achieve these objectives?

For purposes of this discussion, let's address those charged with diversity & inclusion. I'd like to make the case that adding flexibility into the diversity & inclusion mix can be just what the doctor ordered; if introduced, integrated, and managed appropriately. In fact, flexibility is fundamentally a diversity issue - each individual - irrespective of age, gender, and situation has unique work/life needs. And as stated earlier, these work/life needs will only intensify. Why not ensure that flexible work policies, practices and opportunities are built into the diversity & inclusion framework? By doing so, leaders will be taking a practical approach to contributing to the advancement and engagement of diverse talent.

Consider this profile. First generation Chinese American woman, mid forties, 85 year old father lives in her home, mother of a five year old, former CPA, currently using her finance skills as a controller in a part-time capacity at a mid-sized technology firm. Currently facing a divorce, the impact of which will be financial as well as requiring her to more heavily shoulder her child and parent caretaking roles at different times of the day. This professional's need is pretty clear cut - she needs to work more hours but needs some form of flexibility to do so. How does a company provide a win-win solution here, so the firm gets the benefit of keeping a diverse professional and the professional gets the financial and peace of mind she needs? If this situation hits the D&I executive's desk what is his/her position in this situation and as more of them get elevated?

Say yes - Offer a flex work arrangement. Either proactively or reactively offer the employee the ability to take advantage of informal flexibility (which is occurring in your company any way, just not necessarily publicized). Provide this employee with informal flexibility - the ability to handle the child and parental commitments she now has with the understanding of the total hours expected to be worked, the practicalities of how this would occur (certain hours at home, how you/employee communicate, how this will be deemed a success or not, etc.), and the expected business results.

Say no - Ignore the situation or turn down a request for an arrangement. Tell the employee that this isn't company practice and end the discussion. Possible ramifications? Resignation, or worst yet, having the person stay, manifesting itself through stress, illness, lateness, additional sick days, disengagement, poor attitude/performance. All translating into increased costs to the company.

Consider a middle ground. Talk to the employee about how flex can be a possibility perhaps by piloting it in some way in the current job, at a future time, or in another position at the company. This goodwill gesture can help the employee see that the company cares and wants to work through a possible win-win solution.

Diversity and inclusion leaders have the opportunity to 'include' its company's flex position into its own agenda. Whether that position is formal flex, informal flex or career flex, or some combination of the three, it can be a win-win. Furthermore, by pooling its resources (people, spend, initiatives, vendors) with others who have flex on their agenda - work life leaders, mobility task forces - there is opportunity. What is important is finding those multi-discipline leaders who are like minded - who view flexibility as a 'must have' in today's economy and that truly espond to today's multi-cultural, cross-generational, varied lifestyle workforce. By doing so, diversity leaders can add this secret sauce into their 2009 plans and have a more productive, healthy and engaged workforce as a result, one committed to staying and advancing.


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