Human Resources -- How To Solve The Worker Shortage

Dec. 21, 2004
Manufacturers must learn that an elephant won't fit in a house built for a giraffe.

Even with the vast number of layoffs in the last six months, manufacturers find themselves scrambling for workers. There's a shortage of managers. A shortage of information-technology workers. A shortage of skilled manufacturing workers. But perhaps companies have no one to blame but themselves for their predicament. Attend any human-resources conference and there will be an endless number of sessions on how to find, recruit, and retain people, and how to tap into the often ignored labor pools of older and disabled workers. But presentations on how to create a work environment that attracts people will be few and far between. "The problem is often not whether companies can find someone who is qualified; it is whether they think someone will fit in," asserts R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., CEO of R. Thomas Consulting & Training Inc., Atlanta, who also is founder and senior fellow at the American Institute for Managing Diversity Inc., Atlanta. "If companies don't think someone will fit, they won't hire them. They won't work to create an environment where everyone can fit in." So, if there are worker shortages, says Thomas, who spoke at the annual conference of the Employment Management Assn. in April, it's probably because companies are trying to make people fit, rather than creating a work environment where people can feel comfortable and can contribute regardless of their backgrounds or culture. Thomas likes to tell the fable of the friendship and subsequent business partnership that develops between a giraffe and an elephant. The elephant struggles to fit in a house built for the giraffe, who, coincidentally, also has moved his woodworking plant into the house's lower level. Thomas has developed a highly amusing but pointed animated film to show the elephant's inability to enter a tall, narrow hallway where raw materials are stored. The giraffe suggests that the elephant do aerobics and take ballet so it can fit into the hallway and walk down the stairs. The video makes viewers laugh -- and think. As a manager have you acted like a giraffe and tried to make people in your workforce conform to a preconceived notion? As an employee have you felt uncomfortable because of how co-workers or supervisors viewed a certain aspect of your personality, appearance, or racial or cultural background? If manufacturers want to find enough people to overcome labor "shortages," says Thomas, they must create an environment where people feel comfortable and want to stay. And it won't be enough, he says, to focus on how individuals get along or how to fit everyone into a giraffe house. "I used to believe that the essence of diversity management was to build a giraffe house that works for everyone," says Thomas. "But you can't make an elephant comfortable in a giraffe house because the problem is the house, the environment. One year, you will try to accommodate elephants; the next year, horses; and the year after that, bulls." Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin, addressing a WorldatWork conference last month in Nashville, offered a similar message. "You can't treat people the same. That is not how you manage diversity. The single biggest mistake we in management can make is to say that sameness is equality. There are differences between men and women, blacks and whites, and between people with different cultural or religious backgrounds. Understanding and managing diversity means listening to someone else even if you don't like what you hear." With workforces becoming increasingly diverse, Thomas argues that companies will "have to be prepared to move beyond harmony and respect to changing the culture and changing the systems to create an environment that naturally enables all participants to contribute. "You must create an organization where the only question is, 'Can they do the job?'" Senior Editor Michael A. Verespej covers human-resources issues for IndustryWeek

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