For business and government leaders, one of the keys to success is a diverse workplace, and that’s practiced in a variety of ways locally.

“Diversity really is a fluid term, in terms of the definition,” David Martin,who heads up La Paz development and communications efforts, said.“It is definitely pursued differently at different places. It’s a very layered and nuanced term, and the vast majority of people look at it in a rudimentary way.”

The average person’s idea of diversity might be mainly centered around the inclusion of different races in the workplace.


But in the past couple of decades the concept has evolved to include an array of differences, such as age, race, ethnicity, gender, disabilities, and sexual orientation.

Diversity means understanding and appreciating differences, local officials said.

Upcoming events

– La Paz:As part of National Diversity Awareness Month, La Paz Chattanooga will continue the Latino Awareness Series with asession called, “The Evolution of Diversity” on Oct. 21.The session will be hosted in the auditorium at TVA’s downtown Missionary Ridge Building on Market Street from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Click here for more information.

– The Urban League: The Equal Opportunity Day Breakfast and Awards ceremony is scheduled for Oct. 29 from 7 to 9 a.m. at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

The event aims to “emind our community that the greatness of our country rests upon the principle of equal opportunity for everyone.”

Click here for more information.

– Volkswagen:To help support minority suppliers, Volkswagen hosts an annual trade show called “Chattanooga Partnering For Success”. This year’s event is schedule to take place on Nov. 19, 2013 at the Chattanooga Convention Center. This is in an effort to not only connect suppliers to Volkswagen directly, but also to connect Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers.

And many business leaders have found that having a diverse workforce and educating employees about differences creates a more harmonious, innovative working environment, leads to customer satisfaction, and generally contributes to success at a company.

Diversity in the workplace can also help a company increase market share, cut down on turnover costs, make a business more able to adapt, and lead to a more creative environment, according to the Center for American Progress.

For companies who work directly with customers, having experience with a diverse workforce makes them better able to connect to and serve their diverse range of clients, officials said.

It’s not black and white
Although many people still likely see diversity in the narrow light of racial constructs, Martin said that’s an antiquated way of thinking.

That has evolved as society and the local community has become more diverse.

For example, by 2020 15 percent of the city’s population and 12 percent of the county’s will be made up of Latinos, Martin said. That wasn’t true in the ’90s, he said.

Ron Harris, director of workforce diversity at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, echoed the idea that the definition of diversity has become more expansive.

At his company, it means including everyone’s background and viewpoint, beyond race and gender.

He used the example of age. Today’s workforce is more diverse in age than ever before in history, he said.

It includes people born nearly 40 years apart, in some cases.

The Center for American Progress reported that, according to the United States Census Bureau, 22.1 percent of U.S. businesses are owned by people who aren’t white, and that-according to the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce-gay or transgendered entrepreneurs own about 1.4 million U.S. businesses. That’s five percent of the country’s companies.

“Our world is changing and it’s no longer changing at an evolutionary pace, it’s changing at a revolutionary pace. The demographics of our city, our state, our country are changing,” Harris said. “We live locally but we have to work globally. When you post a job, anybody in the world can apply if they have the Internet.”

Reflecting the community
Nick Decosimo, managing principal at Decosimo accounting firm, said that leaders should aim to create workforces that are representative of the diverse communities they serve and allow for each employees’ unique perspectives to help solve problems, meet client needs and relate to customers.

“We are finding that our prospective clients are caring more and more about diversity as they evaluate which accounting firm would be the best cultural fit for serving their company,” he said via email. “For example, women-owned businesses want to be sure that we too have a strong [female] leadership base that will be involved in serving and advising them.”

How are area businesses practicing diversity?
Martin, who has talked to an array of area business leaders about what diversity means to their company, said that leaders practice diversity in many different ways.

To one company, it might mean working with minority-owned businesses. At another, it might mean educating employees about a wide range of backgrounds so they can relate to any customer who calls. At another, it might mean celebrating employee backgrounds.

At BlueCross BlueShield Tennessee, leaders aim to keep employees informed about diversity. The company’s employees give cultural lessons quarterly and provide a forum where people can ask questions about people with different backgrounds.

Southern, African, French, Chinese and Indian employees are some of the groups that have been represented at the sessions, Harris said.

At Decosimo, employees actively sponsor and volunteer with associations that have women-focused initiatives. The company’s leaders also have an internship program that helps them include younger generations, and they support community events that support diversity, Decosimo said.

Volkswagen Chattanooga spokesman Scott Wilson said being an equal opportunity employer is what’s important.

“We treat all team members in a manner that is non-discriminatory, without regard to sex, race, gender, national origin, color, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, veteran status, age, disability, genetic information, or any other protected category,” he said via email.

And diversity initiatives are an important part of the company’s goal to become an employer of choice in the region, he said.

“Volkswagen Chattanooga will benefit from diversity through better understanding of, and relationships with, team members, our community and business partners,” he said. “We also strive to foster a culture of inclusion, where team members can thrive and contribute to the success of the organization at their highest level.”

Volkswagen leaders have a five-prong strategy to meet their diversity goals that includes: involvement in the community they serve, conducting diversity and awareness training activities, including women and minority-owned businesses in their supplier network, recruiting and retaining a multi-cultural workforce, and having support of all the strategies from the company’s top leaders.

Volkswagen Chattanooga’s workforce includes people from about 37 different countries.

Diversity in government
James McKissic, director of the city’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, echoed the need to create a workforce that is reflective of the community.

When McKissic took the position, he visited businesses and talked to them about their best practices in diversity.

And then he and other leaders created a diversity council made up of about 25 city employees. Those people have been driving a lot of the diversity activities, he said.

Leaders have also recently started a Spanish class for city employees.

City leaders also work to provide opportunities for diverse businesses to get city contracts, and they have an internship program to attract and retain young talent.

As stewards of the taxpayer dollars, it’s important to be able to connect with the diverse members of the community, McKissic said.