Recently, someone asked me the timeless question, “What keeps you up at night?”

It happened to be in front of over 100 attendees at an open mic session, but my response was direct and without hesitation, “I want to know how to work myself out of a job.”

Yes, it might seem like an odd response, especially with my peers and my boss in the auditorium. But, let me explain.  

I lead the Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) program in the AT&T Technology and Operations (ATO) organization within AT&T Communications. Ultimately, I want D&I in ATO to be fluid. I want it to be part of the fabric of how we interact with each other – eventually eliminating the need for my role.

Diversity has been shaping our company for 142 years.

Our employees come from all backgrounds and their unique perspectives have helped AT&T evolve, innovate and most importantly, understand our customers. Diversity is integral to everything we do. We strive to develop a culture of diversity and inclusion. Yet, there’s still more for us to learn.

In 2016, AT&T Inc.’s Chairman & CEO Randall Stephenson challenged employees to embrace diversity by moving our focus from tolerance to understanding. My team has taken this challenge to heart as we dig deeper into an individual’s diversity. To understand an individual entirely, we need to find out everything that makes someone unique – his/her visible and invisible diversities.

Invisible diversities can lead to invisible challenges for employees

While we tend to think of diversity as differences in skin color, gender and age, visible and invisible differences make us diverse. And unless they are part of an inclusive environment, these invisible diversities (sexual orientation, hidden mental and physical disabilities or being a veteran) often keep individuals from being their authentic self in the workplace. This type of needless stress can stifle critical thinking, creativity and affect overall job performance.

According to the United Census Bureau, 1 in 5 American have a disability. That means 1 of every 5 of your coworkers has a disability. And there are almost 20 million veterans in the U.S., according to the Department of Veterans Affair.

In 2016, Gallup reported than an estimated 10 million people, or 4.1%, of the U.S. adult population, identified as LGBT. With each diversity comes a challenge that can remain unknown to others as long as the conversation around invisible diversities is ignored.

Bringing invisible differences to the surface

Our leadership recognizes the importance of starting the conversation. We have an open dialogue for employees to learn how to best engage with coworkers. We’re trying to build awareness, knowledge and understanding by focusing on three main pillars.

We encourage employees to engage. Seek people different than themselves and start a conversation. Find your passion and volunteer in your community.

We push ourselves to continually develop our knowledge and understanding of others. Through Diversity and Inclusion courses and mentoring programs, we continue to learn and grow.

Third is advocacy. Providing information around how and why to be an Ally. What does that look like? Where do ‘I’ start?

Diversity maximizes team performance, innovation and creativity

Do we have the diverse workforce and perspectives essential to innovate, create the best products and solutions for our customers?

Engaging with others from various backgrounds helps us to learn and shape our own perspectives. The same is true for the corporate world. A diverse workforce and inclusive culture spurs innovation and creativity.

Randall Stephenson is a firm believer in the power of diversity, especially to fuel innovation. He stated, “A diverse workforce and inclusive culture are essential to AT&T. They allow us to attract and retain the best and the brightest to develop the most innovative products and solutions to meet our customers' needs."

In a 2015 study, Bersin by Deloitte found that diverse companies had 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee over a three-year period compared to non-diverse companies. The research also shows that inclusive companies are 1.8 times more likely to be change-ready and 1.7 times more likely to be innovation leaders in their market.

Since we started opening the dialogue on invisible diversities, we’ve seen employees connect with each other in ways that may not have been possible before.

When differences flourish, people can be their authentic self in the workplace and bring their unique views. Rather than spending their energy trying to fit into a mold, our employees can focus on freely sharing their unique ideas for their business solutions.

That’s better for business, for us and for our customers.

Mark Patterson
Mark Patterson senior business manager, Diversity & Inclusion, AT&T Technology & Operations