As in many offices around the United States, people of different backgrounds work at the headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service in Washington D.C.
Richard Regan, a Native American, joined the IRS a year ago. A member of the Lumbee-Cheraw tribe, he's often surprised at how little people around him know about Native Americans.
“Not only surprised, sometimes it really angers me," Regan says.
However, he finds it an opportunity to educate his coworkers about his background.
“I found they are pretty open to listening and changing some poorly conceived notions from the past about American Indians and Alaskan natives.”
Native Americans are one of the many racial and ethnic groups at the agency.
“Folks are Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic or Latino, Asian-American, American Indian, Alaskan native, Pacific Islanders. We even have a category where an individual can indicate two or more races,” says Elaine Ho, who works in the agency’s Diversity and Inclusion Departmen. “IRS is almost 66 percent women. And we have over 40 percent employees of color. We have 10 percent employees with disabilities. So, from that perspective, we are very diverse.”
Federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin are meant to ensure equality in employment and education, but they also promote diversity.
Ho, an Asian-American, says people of different backgrounds bring different perspectives to their workplace, which can increase innovation and creativity.
“If you are surrounded by people that completely agree with you, who look like you, who think like you, who come to the same answers, you might think you’re in a great working environment because you'll never disagree," she says. "But that means that you’ll also run into the same roadblocks, the same problems.”
But diversity comes with its own challenges, such as misunderstandings and prejudice. Monica Davy, who heads the Diversity and Inclusion Department, says the IRS works hard to overcome that.
“We try to go around and do presentations or speeches or training to let people see the benefits of diversity," she says. "We show them the fact that there are studies out there that demonstrate that a diverse team - people with differences working together - can produce a better product.”
A corporate culture that acknowledges, respects and appreciates differences can also lead to better service for customers and clients, according to diversity expert Howard Ross.
“There is a hospital in the midwest in Flint, Michigan. They had some tension between black and white employees," he says. "Tension between management and labor that had also fallen along racial lines. They had a lot of issues in terms of patient satisfaction. They established an education program. We trained 40 people in the organization to lead that program on an ongoing basis. Within three years they went from last to first in their marketplace, and went from a deficit in terms of their operation to a strong profit.”
In his book, "Reinventing Diversity," Ross explains how his consulting company helped that effort.
"We created a tool called ‘Culture Vision’ which is a web-based tool that allows doctors and nurses to go in a matter of minutes and find cultural information about a patient, everything from how to better communicate with the patient to drugs that a patient might react to differently because of their genetic background.”
Ross says the movement of people around the globe has transformed the make-up of societies.
“We have countries like Denmark and Sweden, where 40 years ago, three or four percent of the population were people who were born outside of the country," Ross says. "Now it’s over 15 percent, moving toward 20 percent. You go to places like Singapore where before the last few years, diversity was never an issue, now they are talking about it. To Japan, where all of a sudden people have to consider should we get more women in, should we allow immigrants to come in to the businesses that we’re working with. These are places where people never talked about diversity up until the last 20 years.”
Yet now, as the world is becomes more connected, physically and virtually, corporations and governments are discovering the value of diversity.