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Have You Built a House for Diversity?

December 2, 2015
Companies struggle each and every day with diversity and inclusion issues. They put in policies for compliance reasons and create affinity groups so that people with like-backgrounds and experiences can have relationships with other people with like-backgrounds and experiences.
 
They change the way they recruit and the way they select employees to join their firms. They put in special mentoring programs and create special career paths for specific types of employees.
 
Companies go after awards and distinctions regarding inclusion and diversity and can accomplish many things, but unfortunately they often fall short of their original goal.
 
As I think about these challenges it reminds me of an old fable written in 1999 by Thomas and Woodruff called “Building a House for Diversity: The Giraffe and Elephant.”  It’s a fable, but serves as a metaphor for diversity issues that we face every day in our organizations. 
 
It’s about a giraffe that has built an award winning home for giraffes.  The house is built with high ceilings, tall doorways, and the windows are set high for privacy and creating light.  The hallways are narrow to save space and yet the house provides comfort and convenience for the giraffe and his family.  The giraffe is very proud of his house, and then one day when working in their woodshop while looking out the window the giraffe sees an elephant coming down the road.  The giraffe knows the elephant.  They have a lot in common.  They have worked together at the local school and PTA and the elephant is an excellent wood worker as well. 
 
Knowing they have that in common, wanting to continue to build the relationship and being proud of the house and workshop that the giraffe has built, the giraffe invites the elephant to come into the house and see the workshop.  The giraffe is excited about potentially working with the elephant on some woodworking projects.
 
So the giraffe sticks his head out the window and invites the elephant to come in.  It doesn’t take long for there to be a problem.  The elephant is able to get his head through the door but he can go no further. 
 
At first the giraffe is okay and makes a polite comment saying something to the effect that it is a good thing that his doors are expandable in the workshop in order to bring in certain equipment.  The giraffe offers to fix the problem and removes bolts and panels from the door to allow the elephant in.  They talked for a while and swapped woodworking stories.  Then the giraffe’s wife leans her head down the basement stairs and says to her husband he has a telephone call. He tells the elephant that he needs to take that call upstairs and that the elephant should make himself at home.
 
The elephant starts to explore.  As he explores, the elephant hears a crunch on the floor.  He decides he will back out and join the giraffe upstairs. As he starts up the stairs they begin to crack. He jumps off and falls against the wall, forcing the wall to crumble.  The elephant is uncomfortable, disheveled and dismayed.  The giraffe comes down the stairs asking what’s going on.  The elephant explains that he was trying to make himself at home.  The giraffe looks around and realizes what the problem is, the doorway is too narrow for the elephant, so obviously the elephant is too big. We have to make him smaller. He suggests to the elephant that there is an aerobics studio nearby and that he needs to take some classes there to get his weight and size down. 
 
The story continues and consistently every time there is a problem with the elephant and how he needs to change something about himself. The irony is that those of us who are different, not just in terms of race, color, national origin, sex, but even in thought process, we are consistently asked to change.  We are asked to change because we are different.  We don’t look at the organization typically and ask, have we built a home that can accommodate different types of people with different types of thought processes? Obviously, we need a culture that connects us.  Beyond that, if diversity and inclusion are:
 
  • aspects of our strategy
  • a vehicle we use to get closer to our customers and clients
  • a vehicle we use to strengthen our thought process and avoid group think
  • what we use to find the best talent
Maybe we should ask, does the elephant need to lose weight or is our door too narrow?