CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Companies will need to embrace the changing makeup of their employee and customer populations if they want to succeed, a Chattanooga workplace diversity expert said Thursday.
"You're either going to be intentionally inclusive, or unintentionally exclusive," said Ronald Harris, director of workforce diversity for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, in a presentation to more than 100 industrial professionals at a recent Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce industry appreciation luncheon.
"If you are [unintentionally exclusive], your business is going to suffer," Harris said. "You've got to ask what voice isn't at the table and who isn't at the table."
Harris said Tennessee businesses need to engage in cross-cultural communication that encompasses diversity driven by racial, ethnic and generational perspectives.
As an example, Harris showed his audience a 157-page report published by the Tennessee Department of Economics that lists more than 3,000 foreign-owned businesses in the state. Three years ago, he said, there were only 1,500 foreign-owned businesses in Tennessee.
"If you are going to remain in business and be effective in business, then this is what you have to deal with," Harris said. "You can no longer afford to be culturally corporately illiterate."
He said proposed changes to immigration laws may play a strong role in bringing millions of illegal immigrants "out of the shadows" and into citizenship. He recommended business leaders ask themselves how many of those people live in Tennessee.
Harris said people often let cultural differences create distractions and barriers. He urged businesses to engage in frank, respectful conversations instead of ignoring differences out of a sense of political correctness.
"We are going to have to leave our comfort zone and move into a discomfort zone," said Harris, citing the effectiveness of workshops at BlueCross that addressed misconceptions and supported understanding of different ethnicities that the company employs, including Indians, Africans and Chinese.
Harris said generational gaps will require just as much attention, citing different perspectives on authority, styles of communication and technological adaptation.
In three years, he said, five generations will be in the workplace together, creating an even more diverse environment.
"His observations are spot on, especially in regards to technology within the workforce," said Carolyn Webb, human resources generalist for Whirlpool, who described how younger employees negotiated computerization easier than older employees.
"I believe this means that our business leaders are going to have to re-evaluate what they are expecting in the newest generation of employees entering the workforce," said Lisa Pickel, director of existing industry programs for the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce.
Despite Cleveland's recent high marks for economic development in Forbes magazine (which ranked Cleveland as the fourth best small city for jobs in the country in 2013, compared to 220th in 2012), local industry will need to consider cultural changes, Pickel said.
Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at email@example.com.