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In This Economy Can You Afford Diversity?

Diversity in the workplace
Diversity in the workplace

As employers freeze salaries, lay off workers, slash travel budgets and even scale back on once ubiquitous perks like free coffee, many question whether they will abandon diversity efforts in the wake of the recession.

When businesses are worried about just staying afloat, does diversity get tossed overboard?

It is now commonplace for employers to voice their support of a diverse workplace; but making diversity a reality rather than simply a refrain requires work, planning and, to some extent, money. When there’s less cash to go around, budgets for programs that ostensibly represent only a company’s social conscience rather than its fiscal responsibility may be the first to shrink.

A strategic investment

However, as someone who works with hundreds of law firms each year to publish their diversity achievements and efforts, I believe that appreciation for a diverse and inclusive workforce has burrowed more deeply in corporate consciousness than many realize.

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This isn’t to say that cost-conscious employers will not cut back on their recruiting efforts or discontinue sponsorship of minority scholarships or cancel their day care programs; no doubt many already have and others soon will.

But a company or law firm with long-term strategy, one that plans to be around when the economy improves, will need a well-rounded and able workforce in place to preserve and, hopefully, grow its business. The cultivation of talent, diverse in experience, culture and outlook, represents an investment in a company’s future, not merely a luxury to be enjoyed when the coffers are full. It is not a distraction from, but a contribution to, a company’s bottom line. Where diversity and inclusion truly are core values, they will not be set aside just because implementing them is inconvenient. It seems to me that one virtue of the current disillusionment and anger over the recklessness and self-centered disregard among some of our “top” business leaders is the increased demand and appreciation for integrity — both as a personal quality and as a corporate value.

Comparing efforts via the Diversity Database

Moreover, as many employers recognize, diversity is not simply an ethical imperative, it is also a strategic endeavor. The corporate Call to Actionurges companies’ chief legal officers to pledge not only to commit to diversity within their own legal departments but also to make decisions about which law firms to employ based on their diversity performance. These corporations, some of the nation’s largest and most profitable, are using their considerable financial clout to ensure that law firms pay more than lip service to diversity. And law firms are responding. More than 275 law firms nationwide submitted information for publication in Vault’s 2009 Law Firm Diversity Database. This database — created in partnership with the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) and in consultation with representatives of the Call to Action initiative — gives corporate clients, as well as law students, lawyers, recruiters and law firm management, the means to compare and assess the diversity initiatives and progress at law firms across the country.

Every year Vault and the MCCA survey the nation’s top law firms, asking them not only for demographic statistics — e.g., how many minorities and women were hired in the last year, how many were promoted to partner — but also what kinds of mentoring programs are in place, whether the firm has a formal part-time policy, whether it offers domestic partner benefits or uses executive search firms to target diverse hires.

In the most recent issue of the MCCA magazine, Diversity & the Bar, the cover story on diversity in the financial industry discusses how some employers are adapting their initiatives to the challenges of today’s economic climate. Rather than abandoning their efforts or eliminating programs altogether, companies are streamlining them, “relying on more innovative, lost-cost measures to promote their diversity practices.” In this period of financial turmoil, business leaders must be strategic and focused in their spending, to get the most bang for their buck — not a bad operating principle no matter how well the economy is doing. In fact, some of the most successful measures when it comes to diversity don’t require any spending at all — mentoring, monitoring the progress of diverse employees, and ensuring they have access to significant opportunities and clients in order to move forward in their careers.

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Vera Djordjevich is a senior law editor at Vault.comand editor of the Vault/MCCA Guide to Law Firm Diversity Programs. She is a former litigator and holds a JD from New York University and an AB from Stanford. Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com