When designing and implementing diversity programs and initiatives, law firms frequently turn their sights outward, focusing their efforts on recruiting new associates from a wide variety of cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds. While such endeavors are essential for the overall health of an organization, it is equally important for firms to look inward and ensure that a culture of inclusion is built within the firm.

I was reminded of this recently when my team at the American Conference on Diversity consulted with a mid-sized company. On the first day of our program, we gathered the entire staff, from the president to the groundskeepers, into one room. Immediately, the employees segregated themselves, with the executives in suits sitting at the front, the laborers in uniforms forming the back, and the administrative and support staff congregating in the middle. Slowly, we moved the staffers to switch places and sit with people who held positions different from their own through a series of activities. Our efforts were initially met with resistance, but after our team led the staff through a variety of experiential exercises, the employees gradually changed the complexion of the room.

Afterwards, several participants admitted that the experience challenged them; they were uncomfortable sitting with people who came from such different work worlds, cultures and ethnicities and were unsure of how to speak with them.

This type of dialogue is healthy for an organization, as it provides a safe space to discuss difficult or sensitive issues. Law firms that wish to enhance their diversity efforts would do well to facilitate such conversations—to encourage all the employees of the firm to "sit together." When partners, associates, and staffers have the tools for constructive interaction, many of the tensions and misunderstandings based on outward differences that can plague any organization can be addressed in a constructive fashion.

Sometimes the issue is as simple as vocabulary. For instance, if one coworker is unsure of how to refer to a colleague’s ethnic group or sexual orientation, the most sensitive strategy may be to simply inquire—in the same way one might ask a new acquaintance whether he preferred to be called "Michael" or "Mike." The question is posed in a straightforward manner, with no judgments attached.

Cultivating this type of dialogue is critical not simply for the well-being of the staff, but for the day-to-day functioning of the organization. Oftentimes, the managers who seek our services believe their problem is operational—the product or service is not meeting the company’s quality standards—but upon a closer examination we discover a group of people who do not understand how to work together because of their differences. Their wide variety of backgrounds and experiences leads to miscommunications and cultural clashes. However, once these individuals are empowered to express their divergent points of view in a constructive forum, these same teams can begin to work with each other and turn negatives into positives by developing mutual respect and honoring each other’s distinct perspectives; hence, greater teamwork.

When a law firm has a diverse team of attorneys who exchange ideas and impressions in a productive manner, I have found that the practice group becomes stronger than if everyone heralded from a similar background or ethnicity. Firms serve a diverse group of individuals, companies and corporate clients and need the agility to respond to the concerns of clients from a wide variety of cultures, races and ethnicities. Diversity also breeds innovation—channeled correctly, all those variant viewpoints, insights and life experiences can yield cutting-edge solutions.

However, before this collective wisdom and creativity can be harnessed, individuals from different races, cultures, and creeds must be able to engage in frank discussions about their differences. Ultimately, inclusion builds retention.

We all need to step out of our comfort zones, to walk up to the person from the other side of the globe, neighborhood or office park and say, "Hello. Is this seat taken? May I join you?"