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Let’s face it. This whole “diversity” thing has gotten a little out of control.

It wasn’t all that long ago that your average American company’s definition of “best man for the job” was narrower than the eye of a needle. Now, though, shifting public sentiment — combined with some businesses’ shrewd realization that more smart, qualified people is a good thing, no matter what color they are — has spurred the explosion of diversity-as-an-issue into something of a cottage industry. Entire corporate departments are devoted to it, executive positions created to oversee its expansion, career fairs held to promote its importance … and yes, magazines published to discuss and examine it.

So let’s discuss and examine. In February 2007, the Society for Human Resource Management teamed up with the American Institute for Managing Diversity to conduct a yearlong study on the status of diversity in the workplace, the results of which were released in a detailed research report a little over a month ago.

The report, titled the “2007 State of Workplace Diversity Management” and based on a survey of 1,400 human resources professionals, details some good news and some bad news. On the plus side: Most companies identify diversity as a priority, believe increasing it is an important goal, and are placing a greater emphasis on hiring personnel from a more varied pool of applicants.

Unfortunately, the report’s authors found, for many companies the commitment to diversity doesn’t go much further than amorphous beliefs and undefined policies.

“There is lack of discipline and understanding of what diversity means beyond race and gender, or how success is being defined, or not being defined, by most corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives,” Frank McCloskey, vice president of diversity at Atlanta-based Georgia Power and a contributor to the study, said in a statement accompanying the report’s release.

For at least one Massachusetts company, diversity does go beyond hiring practices.

Michael Fales has been the senior manager of workforce diversity and corporate staffing at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts for over seven years. The job, he says, has a lot more to do with community outreach than some might think. A key element of his responsibilities at Blue Cross, which provides health insurance for 3 million Commonwealth residents and employs nearly 4,000, is working with local community-based and professional organizations to determine how the company can help further their goals.

As you might expect, one of the ways Fales helps those professional organizations is by reaching out to them to attract more “diverse talent [into] the organization.”

“We go about doing that through a couple different avenues,” he said. “One is networking with … organizations like the National Black MBA Association and the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting. We sponsor events and work in conjunction with them to promote their causes.”

Fales and his team also work with vendors within Blue Cross Blue Shield’s human resources department, frequently looking to increase supplier diversity, or encouraging the use of often untapped or underutilized companies — particularly those helmed by minorities or women — to provide whatever goods or services the buyer (in this case, Blue Cross Blue Shield) needs.

“That’s a key function for us,” Fales said. “We try to make sure we support minority- and women-owned businesses, as well as temporary staffing agencies that fall into that category that we work with.”

According to Fales, there are a few different methods that he and his colleagues at Blue Cross use to try to increase the organization’s diversity. One approach includes what’s known as “pipelining,” which entails the regular and continuous recruitment of talented individuals whom you may want to bring onboard. Basically, you keep databases of the kinds of people who have the skills, experience and qualifications that your company looks for, and you periodically check in with them to see if they’re available and might be interested in joining your organization.

Michael Fales
Michael Fales is the senior manager of workforce diversity and corporate staffing at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Photo: Tony Irving
Another popular technique, and one Fales says Blue Cross uses to great effect, is to develop partnerships within the company’s local community — particularly with groups that give urban and minority students the opportunity to get their feet wet in the business world.

“You’ve got internship programs with organizations like the Boston Private Industry Council and INROADS … that target diverse talent and bring in interns [interested in pursuing corporate careers] at the high school and college level,” he said. “You hope you can take those folks and work with them and get them as part of your organization once they’ve graduated.”

Once you’ve got those diverse talents on staff, fostering workplaces where people from a variety of backgrounds can feel comfortable to be themselves is a critical element in keeping them. That’s a primary reason that Blue Cross chose to support the Anti-Defamation League’s regional “No Place for Hate” program, which links communities throughout New England working toward creating inclusive environments, through a corporate sponsorship. On top of that, Fales says, the company frequently hosts speakers who discuss topics related to workplace diversity and inclusion, “whether it’s about networking opportunities or learning what some of the barriers to diversity are.”

One of the main barriers, Fales concedes, is the high cost of living in Boston.

According to The Boston Indicators Project — a collaborative effort of The Boston Foundation, the City of Boston and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council aimed at understanding the city’s changing face in a regional context — Greater Boston “remains one of the least affordable places to live in the country, with housing costs among the highest in the U.S.”

The high housing costs “are also limiting the region’s ability to retain and attract the young, highly-skilled workers and recent college graduates who are so critical to the knowledge economy,” the project’s Web site states. “Many are drawn to Boston’s competitor cities, where lower costs of living offer them a stronger start in life.”

It’s a struggle that Fales knows all too well.

“Cost of living is a challenging obstacle right now in recruiting qualified talent,” he said. “Massachusetts as a whole is very diverse. From an academia standpoint, we have some of the best colleges. But cost of living is a key piece. Kids go to school here, and then they [move] to other places. You’ll find that anyone who sits in my seat is going to tell you a very similar story.”

To bolster the company’s efforts not only to emphasize more inclusionary hiring practices, but also a broader array of perspectives in the company’s greater culture, Blue Cross Blue Shield will soon be hiring a director of corporate diversity. That individual will be responsible for making diversity the centerpiece of the company’s numerous initiatives. Naturally, Fales is excited about the hiring, because it will help him to expand his own vision of what diversity should mean.

“From a gratifying standpoint, it’s always great to work with an organization to foster a relationship and see the fruits of your labor, see the top-quality candidates come out of the National Black MBA and watch them grow within the organization and know you had something to do with that,” he said. “A lot of times, we have the opportunity to work with organizations and companies when they’re just getting started. To help foster their growth and do anything you can do to help other people is always a rewarding feeling.”

“It’s always great to work with an organization to foster a relationship
and see the fruits of your labor, see
the top-quality candidates come out
of the National Black MBA
[Association] and watch them grow
within the organization and know
you had something to do with that.”
— Michael Fales