What does it mean when your boss tells you, "Do diversity?" Deborah Dagit, vice president and chief diversity officer at pharmaceutical company Merck, was given this amorphous directive and thinks she's found the solution, at least at her company.

For Merck, it meant forming 10 global constituency groups in the spring of 2007 to inform the leaders of diversity needs.

"The fist place you start is when the CEO wants to get the workforce excited about the corporate culture, but to get an employee excited about what you want from a cultural standpoint, you have to get to know the national cultures and the personal culture," she said Wednesday at the SHRM Diversity and Inclusion conference in Washington, D.C. "When you can understand those things, then you can use the language that fits for them; what is courageous in Japan is not the same in France or the U.S."

Dagit asked the audience of around 40 human resource professionals where their companies were coming from; the answer, she said, changes the way individuals implement a diversity program.

"Are you coming from an ethics and standards place? Then you're going to have to change your culture as a company, which means the programs that we introduce are not only getting more people in the door, but embracing different cultures," she said. On the other hand, companies can look to diversity to give a competitive advantage that helps inform business insights. "It does you no good to say, ‘I'm a diversity leader and my values are in open systems’ when your company is still at stage one."

Merck has had a strong affirmative action program since the 1970s, so it did not take long to move from that to opening the door to domestic partnerships and not referring to disabled people as handicapped. She also pointed to their many global locations and the way they targeted countries that might not have even started a diversity and inclusion conversation.

"The first thing is to do is to talk about the business case," she said. By including more women in the workforce in countries that have not historically had women working, it meant spelling out "there are a high percentage of women graduating, but also they make 70% to 90% of all health care decisions on a global basis," which means businesses abroad have a monetary imperative to bring women into their workforce and to target women as consumers.

She also addressed the question many audience members asked: How to actually make diversity groups effective in influencing business decisions? Merck shifted the employee resource groups from networking grassroots U.S. teams to strategic global business partners with 20 appointed people on the new teams, while still preserving the original grassroots groups.

Each strategic team was assigned a business division: "For the interfaith team, we paired them with the vaccines division because we have vaccines for STDs," Dagit explained. One of the main issues the vaccines division deals with is pushback from religious groups around those controversial vaccines like Gardasil (which helps prevent HPV), so they paired those internal religious leaders to inform the marketing of the vaccines.  

After asking each group what kind of initiatives would benefit the company at large, they collectively identified eight projects, including same-sex domestic partner benefits, flexible work arrangements, diverse talent recruitment, diversity in clinical trails, global multicultural marketing and forming strategic alliances on health care disparities.

When one audience member asked how many people Dagit has on her team to lead these projects, she said three because Merck has recently gone through "staffing changes."

"Right now pharmaceutical companies sell to the 20% of the world that can afford [brand-name prescriptions]. So we're going through workforce cuts to provide what we do to those who need it. All the staff functions are being reduced significantly [with] more outsourcing," she added.

But with the new strategic business partners, there hopefully won't be as much leg work for her team. Each partner is now paired with an "up and coming" employee to help the senior level partner.

In a changing world where the ratio of white to minority children is 1:1, diversity will become essential to guiding business strategies among employers of all sizes and industries.

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