Teaching Israel the Recipe for Diversity

Diversity expert Lenora Billings-Harris says Israel has all the ingredients for a well-balanced workplace. Now we just need to put them all together.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Israeli companies eager to promote diversity in the workplace would be well advised to learn from America’s mistakes, says Lenora Billings-Harris, an international expert and author on the subject.

And the biggest mistake, in her view, is assuming that companies will begin hiring more minority workers simply because the government tells them to.

“Adults don’t do things differently because the government says they should,” Billings-Harris, a featured speaker Wednesday at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s annual conference in Tel Aviv, told Haaretz. “Businesses need to understand what’s in it for them, that they have a vested interest in promoting diversity. Here in Israel, the demographics are changing, and if businesses want to succeed in the next 20-30 years, and not just survive, they can’t ignore these changing demographics.”

Billings-Harris, whose trip was funded by the U.S. State Department, has worked as a diversity consultant and strategist for the past 25 years, advising governments, corporations and non-profit organizations in 20 countries on five different continents.

Named among the top 100 Global Thought Leaders on Diversity by the Society of Human Resource Management, an international organization with 250,000 members, Billings-Harris says she was very encouraged by meetings she had during her weeklong stay in Israel with senior executives at leading corporations, human resource professionals and organizations that advocate on behalf of underrepresented groups in the workplace.

“What I’m thrilled to discover is that Israelis are hungry to know the specific ‘how to's,’” she says.

Recruiting more workers from the two most underrepresented groups in the Israeli workforce – Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews – would not only serve the best interests of employers, she argues, but also help mend some of the key divisions in society.

“Part of the bias I’m picking up here is that you have some groups of people who think other groups don’t work because they’d rather the government take care of them,” she notes. “Well, we deal with the same sort of problem in the U.S., but the fact is that most reasonably intelligent adults absolutely want to be self-sustaining. They don’t want to depend on the government.

"And when people start working together who are different, they begin to see other groups differently," she continues. "The key is to find a way for all those people who are so different to come together as individuals, because it is the individual exchanges that help us get past the group bias.”

Promoting diversity, says Billing-Harris, is not about creating a melting pot, but rather, according to her description, a “tossed salad.”

"With a melting pot, you put all these diversities in the pot, you get the fire going underneath and heat it up, but in end, all the different ingredients meld together. That’s not bad, but when you do it that way it means you have to give up a lot of who people are in order for them to fit into that stew, and you really can’t taste the different ingredients. With a tossed salad, you have lots of distinct flavors – and not one of the ingredients loses its own authenticity.”

When asked where Israel stands in achieving workplace diversity compared to other countries, Billing-Harris says the ingredients are there but the cooking isn't complete.

“Based on my experiences, you have the richness of ingredients here to make diversity work -- the diversity of people, the infrastructure, the high tech, the excellent universities," she says. "You have all the pieces, but they just haven’t come together yet. In other countries where I’ve worked, they have some of the pieces and there are major pieces missing. So compared with other places, you are far ahead of the game with the ingredients, but not necessarily with the implementation.”

Ethiopian children head to school.Credit: Nir Keidar
Diversity expert Lenora Billings-Harris likens diversity not to a melting pot but rather to a tossed salad where 'not one of the ingredients loses its own authenticity.'Credit: David Bachar

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