Time was when diversity in our world meant that a woman had snagged a job customarily performed by men. But our world has changed —a lot. It is a commonplace to find women running distribution operations —big ones. And it is not rare for a female executive to have complete responsibility for a corporate supply chain.
We won't pretend that all the battles have been won, but we can look back to see how very far we have come.
Now, there are newer and more complex diversity challenges in supply chain management, as we have had to acquire workers and supervisors from non-traditional sources.
Those sources are, themselves, varied and diverse. One is a pool of older workers. As people retire later in life, or can't afford to retire, or find they can't stand hanging around the house after they retire, they become natural supplements to the work force.
Distribution center operations are an obvious place for many to land. While they tend to bring an admirable work ethic to the job, they present challenges to management in strength, stamina, realistic expectations for sustained performance levels, technology literacy, and health issues.
Another is a population of physically and mentally challenged individuals. In general, they make productive, loyal, and appreciative workers. But we can't all go as far and as fast as Walgreens did in its South Carolina DC, where workers who fall into the differently abled category are managed to the same productivity and quality standards as employees without mental and physical limitations. Sometimes sheltered work environments can be a good answer; sometimes selected tasks/functions within a larger facility can be assigned to specific individuals. Whatever the solution, it's likely to make routine management tasks like planning, scheduling, training, and day-to-day, hour-to-hour supervision all the more complex and demanding.
The new diversity
A major component of the new diversity, though, is concentrated in immigrant populations, with complicating factors of culture, language, religion, life experience, and history.
Spanish-speaking immigrants in particular are critical components of solving the labor availability equation. But it is an enormous mistake to lump all Spanish-speaking workers under the descriptor "Hispanic." Cultural practices vary widely among different Hispanic nationalities. And, by the way, they don't speak exactly the same Spanish, either. So, management can't make blanket assumptions or manage mixed groups as if they were all the same. Add Portuguese-speaking Brazilians to the mix, and you've complicated the challenge.
Language can be a trickier issue than it might first appear. Many of us have been sensitized to the importance of maintaining linguistic and cultural identity, Hispanic and otherwise. Well-meaning companies have developed training materials in, for example, Spanish and subsidize (or offer) English-as-a-secondlanguage classes. Some offer and promote the option of performing jobs in the worker's native language.
But in many cases, that's not what the folks want. Workers often prefer to work in, and learn, English. Further, when line managers and supervisors are of the same heritage as the work force, they often disapprove of this type of linguistic coddling, believing that the workers should instead be encouraged to learn the prevailing language the way they themselves did.
Beyond Central and South America
Language issues are one thing. Matters really get dicey when cultural and religious practices that are incompatible with "normal" Western business activity are part of the package that comes with the immigrant work force. Management has then got some serious thinking to do about how much pain is tolerable for the sake of getting enough headcount in the door in order to get customer merchandise out the door.
The challenges multiply when the immigrant labor population carries a lot of endemic performance and productivity baggage. For example, how much time and effort will be required to re-tune pace and sense of urgency for a worker who grew up in an agricultural village with a radically different culture and belief set? How will other, more traditional workers respond to how the newcomers are permitted to behave?
The debate gets livelier when religious practices, which may have little or no room for negotiation, get in the way of daily —or seasonal —peak volume processing or break schedules. What happens when employees have to stop work and go off to a room to pray a few times a day? And what can be done when the immigrants' traditional garb presents safety hazards in the presence of machinery?
Facing difficult possibilities
Finally, it's time for some straight talk. There have been African-Americans in our profession who, with extraordinary talent and effort, have climbed the mountain and reached the top —but not enough. We see people of color in operational and line supervision roles seamlessly integrated into the whole —but not enough. Our workshops are showing a growing racial diversity in their makeup —but not enough. Good things have been happening in this arena —but not enough.
It strikes us that an untapped alternative labor source might be found among the under- and unemployed in our cities. Some might argue that disconnects in attitudes and expectations, in skills and readiness, are more of a class issue than a race issue. Maybe so, but it seems to disproportionately affect minority communities. Corporations and community groups might need to workin concert to prepare future workers, to train candidates in operational processes, and to beef up capabilities in reading, mathematics, and technology application.
It is critical for all levels of supervision and management to understand how delicate and sensitive, how complex and daunting, it can be to effectively deal with these issues. Whatever we wind up doing to assimilate, accommodate, or acclimate non-traditional work forces, respect for origins, heritage, and potential must be both sincere and consistent.
But the effort may well be worth it and may even be mandatory if an adequate work force is to be built at all. Yet it's a little like outsourcing to China. It can't be a snap decision, and a lot of focused investigation is required to figure out what's really involved, and what the real costs, benefits, and risks are.