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Vive la Difference

Appreciating diversity in the workplace can have a big impact on your small business.

It's human to want to be around people similar to yourself. But in a small business, that can be costly to your bottom line.

Most people infer that diversity just refers to racial differences in the workplace. It can, however, include differences in gender, age, religion, thinking styles or sexual identity.

According to

Global Lead, a Cleveland-based consulting firm, and

Hubbard & Hubbard, an organizational consulting firm, diversity in a small business can affect everything from recruitment, retention, career development and office culture to community involvement.

"Diversity is about understanding the similarities and differences between people in the workplace. Inclusion is about leveraging those differences and similarities to generate better bottom-line results," says Janet Reid, founding partner of Global Lead, and "having diversity in a small business is the key to its success."

In some ways, diversity is more critical for small business than for larger ones. "There's no ability for people to fly under the radar," says Reid.

And it's important within a small-business culture that there's a policy of inclusion. It may be more comfortable for people to seek input from colleagues they are familiar with, but that can prevent workers from coming up with the best solutions to problems or even being able understand a wide range of clients and customers.

"To get to those insights, you have to have cultural dexterity where you can understand people's unarticulated needs," says Reid. One example would be

Procter & Gamble's

ability to see parents' need for disposable diapers when they expressed their annoyance with cloth diapers and pins. "They were able to innovate to create an articulated solution," says Reid.

Small-business owners across many industries recognize the importance of diversity.

"The construction industry talks often about the competitive environment for projects when the true competition is for an entire generation of talent -- and we will lose that talent to other industries and professions if we can't get our high-performing individuals to look inside themselves and bring their best talents to work, no matter what their race, gender or background," says Peter Strange, CEO of Messer Construction, a 900-employee company based in Cincinnati.

Ed Rigaud, CEO of Enova, a plastic-injection molding company, focuses on how important diversity is in the early phases of creative conceptualization. "Workplace diversity fosters innovation and leadership in business globally. The best formula for innovation is when you mix a wide range of diverse backgrounds, interests and knowledge into the crucible in which creative ideas form. By contrast, homogeneous businesses are at a disadvantage, because they can't leverage the diversity of perspectives, knowledge and experience."

Talk About It

For some companies, dealing with diversity is still a challenge. Tim Mulvaney created the

Mulvaney Group, which encourages dialogue between people at work who don't normally deal with each other, and about topics they might avoid discussing.

Mulvaney actually goes inside the workplace to encourage these conversations. One instance was between two colleagues who worked at an organization that provided services across all different religions. One employee wore a crucifix around her neck, and her colleague felt that would interfere with the ecumenical mission of the organization. To resolve this issue, the two employees met to discuss both the importance of religion and the validity of this concern.

Relationships between coworkers are key to a company's success. "People don't leave companies, they leave managers," Mulvaney points out. Employees want to know what's expected of them, to be given feedback and a chance to grow and succeed. "The more different we

think we are, the less we have those conversations" and make those connections, says Mulvaney.

Talk isn't cheap: Mulvaney's services start around $18,000 for a series of conversations, but that "could save you half a million in the costs of replacing ... employees," says Mulvaney. Fostering open dialogue and feedback helps all employees understand who their coworkers (and who they themselves) really are.

One employee Mulvaney encountered was uncomfortable with a colleague who had a heavy foreign accent. He was struggling to understand his coworker, so Mulvaney assigned him to engage in conversations with at least two people with an unfamiliar accent. This helped the employee become more comfortable with listening closely, and less apprehensive about misunderstanding his foreign colleague.

Different cultural backgrounds can also cause problems. One of Mulvaney's clients was having a difficult time with simply how to greet his colleague from France, who was accustomed to getting kissed on both cheeks. "Initially it was fine, but then he grew sick of the custom. He dealt with him by pretending that he was sick," says Mulvaney. It grew into a significant issue, as the person he needed to talk to every day was one he was actively avoiding. After an upfront conversation, however, the coworkers were able to compromise and resolve the issue.

"You have to get engaged in people and take a personal risk," says Mulvaney.

Embracing diversity may initially seem challenging, but just consider the payoff -- how such varied voices can bring different and profitable perspectives to your business.