Women business owners might think they have a good handle on diversity issues. But diversity is more than employing working mothers, aging baby boomers and women of color in your organization. This article offers a reality check and some ways to rethink diversity issues at your company.

Diversity is a mind-set. It's a way of thinking about differences and working with differences that transcend the obvious physical factors of race, gender and age. It can even transcend the sometimes less-visible but equally powerful dynamics of disability and sexual orientation.

For example, you may have policies for working mothers that rival that of Fortune 500 companies--generous maternity leave, flex time to accommodate parenting schedules, breast-feeding rooms, etc. But how do you handle the female employee who wants time off for her sick cat, or the gay male employee who wants the same amount of time off as an employee who has given birth? What if the employee is a never-married woman who needs leave for her fifth child?

The point isn't how you as a business owner would handle any of the above. The point is your mind-set when it comes to handling a diversity issue that is different from the norm.

The opposite of diversity is not sameness, blandness or monotony but norm or baseline. Basically, when people think about whether a workplace is diverse, they have in their heads a subtle, hazy thought of what they expect a place to look like. Anyone who is different is considered to have made the place diverse.

Ironically, the more varied and different our society gets, the more we rely on the mental norms in our head to allow us to bounce gracefully from one situation to the next. But in the workplace, having expectations of what the norm should be gets you into real trouble because, theoretically, the doors of employment are open to everyone.

It's only in understanding and identifying what you consider the cultural norm or baseline of the business you operate that you determine when you're dealing with an issue of diversity, of difference.

For example, let's say your company has taken into account the considerations that arise from employees leaving early to pick a kid up from day care or getting in late because of a doctor's appointment. But you haven't dealt with the employee who has to take days off at a time because a parent needs to be put in a nursing home or the distractions and stress that arise for employees when a parent is diagnosed with an illness or a disability.

The best way to handle this may be to talk with the employee to see what, if any, accommodations can be made. A recent "MetLife Caregiving Cost Study" shows that lost productivity of working caregivers costs U.S. businesses more than $33 billion a year. This is a disturbance to the "norm" that most businesses will increasingly grapple with as the population ages.

Diversity Exercise

This is an exercise in how to think about the differences you don't consciously notice.

Pick someone in your workplace who is as close as possible to you judging by obvious, visible characteristics such as race, gender, age and any disabilities you may have.

If at all possible, pick someone whom you know a lot about.

Now, make two lists on a piece of paper--one about you and one about the person you selected. List absolutely every difference you can think of, getting downright picky if you need to. Look at things like marital status, number of children, number of siblings, number of pets, types of pets, parts of the country you grew up in, parts of the community you live in now, general religious or spiritual practices, the ways you dress, eating tastes, hobbies, health habits, kinds of things you read, workplace habits and talking styles.

At the end of the exercise, you'll see how individuals can be very different despite the fact that many people view race and gender as the only elements of diversity.

The biggest strength of any business started by an entrepreneur is the creative spirit of the business owner. That creative spirit has found a way to satisfy a need or offer a want in a unique way. Addressing diversity requires that same spirit of identifying where you are, where you want to go, and creating a plan for what terrain you have to cross to get there.

One key element to dealing with difference is making sure that the distinctions between differences are noticed and acknowledged--not glossed over. For example, if your business is predominantly female, that doesn't mean all viewpoints involving sex disappear from the equation. A recent lawsuit, for example, found that a woman who was fired for having an "Ellen DeGeneres kind of look" that was considered too "tomboyish" for a hotel desk clerk has the right to bring a case against her employer because the employer was engaging in sexual stereotyping, which is actionable under the law. Obviously, the details surrounding such situations matter. But this case does highlight the fact that employers--small and large--should allow the differences of their workers to play out in a way that contributes to the work and doesn't distract or discriminate.

And with any plan, awareness is always a crucial element. You can figure out and promote a more cohesive and engaged work force built on a foundation of diversity, whether it's a business of five or 5,000:

  • Define the "what" of diversity for your workplace. Is it about numbers, representation, treatment, policies or serving a particular mission because of the nature of the organization itself (for example, emphasizing the hiring of women from a certain socioeconomic group).
  • Identify the "why" of diversity. Is it for purposes of legal or contractual compliance, because it matters greatly to your client/customer base, because it reflects your personal value system or for some other reason.
  • Take the time to pull together your diversity polices, both official and unofficial--an employee handbook, handouts, e-mails, word-of-mouth policies--to consider the collective impression of diversity you've actually created (rather than just what you've articulated) for your work force or for anyone looking at your business.
  • Periodically check the pulse of the people you employ. Take time over lunch, as part of the job-evaluation process and at meetings to see what they think about how difference is treated and respected in the workplace. Don't be afraid to dedicate a fun, brainstorming session dedicated to this topic.
  • Swim in a new pool--a new hiring pool, that is. Most employers and business owners have an official or default mechanism for how they hire new employees. Whether it's the classifieds, word-of-mouth or friendly poaching from previous workplaces, change up how you find new people. That will definitely infuse your workplace with diversity.

Diversity is a mind-set that sees differences and embraces how those differences can be used to help build a better business.

Michelle T. Johnson is the author ofDiversity Code: Unlock the Secrets to Making Differences Work in the Real World.  Her diversity work has involved speaking and training at Walmart, H&R Block, and several municipalities.