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African American History Month speaker discusses link between diversity, performance during visit to NUWC Division Newport

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs | March 17, 2020

NEWPORT, R.I. —

In discussing the intrinsic ties between workplace diversity and performance, author and retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gary Richardson compared employees to cellphones to illustrate his point.

“Every experience you have creates an app unique to you,” Richardson told employees at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport on Feb. 27. “If I as your co-worker don’t know how to get to your apps, I’m not using you to your fullest potential.

“People are like cellphones with much more power. We have to figure out how to tap into those specific apps to make them best work for this warfare center.”

Performance, Richardson said, is too often an overlooked component in his formula for achieving diversity. Representation and inclusion are also key concepts according to Richardson, who is the president, CEO and founder of the diversity-consulting firm R. Diversity WorkX and spoke as a part of Division Newport’s celebration of African American History Month held in February.

“These three things have to be working together to get to diversity,” Richardson said. “If not, you have affirmative action. You can’t use affirmative action to get diversity; they’re two completely different things.”

Diversity, according to Richardson, is an active process specifically created to foster productivity and working relationships among people of different life experiences, beliefs and demographics with whom they otherwise would have minimal interaction.

“It requires full engagement by employers with employees and employees back with their employers by way of productivity,” Richardson said. “That’s what you hire people for. It must have a connection to productivity or you are talking affirmative action. I have no issue with affirmative action except the way it has been implemented.”

Richardson explained that some organizations have used it to have hiring quotas — different from recruiting quotas — for minority groups other than the two sanctioned by the federal government for a quota system, veterans and those with disabilities.

He further illustrated his view of diversity by showing on the screen behind him a diagram of a human body with its skin missing. This was done to demonstrate that the skin comprises only 16% of our bodies.

“My skin color has never performed a task in my life,” Richardson said. “Unless you want me to just show up and be black all day, you better hire me for my skillset.

“If you think I’m saying don’t hire black folks, that’s not what I’m saying. You get what you hire me for and I’m smart enough to figure that out. If you don’t want anything other than my representation, then that’s what you’re going to get.”

Richardson explained that his background shaped his perspective differently from most. He served for 21 years as a New York state trooper, achieving the rank of technical lieutenant, and was the department's equal employment opportunity compliance officer for more than 6,000 members.

He also served 28 years in both the active-duty Air Force and Air National Guard, retiring as a major. In this capacity, he was a military equal opportunity director and certified diversity facilitator.

“When you have a career where your actions determine someone’s life, you think about things a little differently,” Richardson said. “You stop worrying about what that person in the next seat looks like and you ask what do they do? What skillset do they have? My perspective is not kumbaya diversity. It’s coming from the perspective of performance.”

In addition to his personal experiences, Richardson’s study of history also has shaped his perspective. Early in his talk, Richardson polled the audience, asking when they believed diversity started in this country. After receiving a few responses, he said 1820 would be a good year with which to begin as at this time the Industrial Revolution was shaping economic development in the United States.

Industrialization created the need for more workers, which over the next 100 years came in the form of Irish, Italian and Chinese immigrants, along with freed slaves. This boomed during World Wars I and II, as a massive workforce was required. Richardson noted that while white males were responsible for the ideas of industrialization, Native Americans, immigrants, former slaves and women played key roles in bringing it to fruition.

“Industrialization created the institution known as work. When you got up this morning, you didn’t say you were going to Navy. You said, ‘I’m going to work,’” Richardson said. “Work is the only entity in which we all must do together. We have to figure it out.

“There is no white work; there is no black work — only work. If you have employment, people will come.”

As an employer looking to hire these candidates, though, Richardson remarked that awareness is key as ignorance and lack of knowledge about other cultures could lead to rejecting well-qualified candidates.

It is also about getting the most out of the employees who already are a part of the workforce. He referenced the film “Hidden Figures,” which was screened at Division Newport on March 20, 2019.

When he was the minority recruiting officer with the state police, he noticed there were families who had generations of troopers while others were “one and done.” He found that while one group was telling their children it was a great place to work, many of the African American troopers he spoke to didn’t want their children to go through the difficulties they went through.

“How can I recruit other people who look like me when I can’t recruit my own kids? That’s because of the environment,” Richardson said. “I wish I could tell you there’s some magic in this, but there’s not. It’s about how we treat people. It’s about how we show people that we care. It’s that simple.”

For Richardson, his big break only came after it seemed as if his dream had slipped away. He was 34 years old and had always wanted to become a commissioned officer in the Air Force, which at the time had to happen by age 35. In the middle of that process, though, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred and his duties were suspended to aid in the relief effort in New York City.

“I had mixed emotions,” Richardson said. “My dream was gone while serving my city and country.”

Richardson later received a formal letter informing him that he had aged out, but he did not give up and eventually brought his plight to his wing commander, retired Maj. Gen. Robert Knauff. Richardson was granted an age waiver and made sure not to waste the opportunity, ultimately rising to the rank of major and wracking up awards along the way.

“You have to take a chance on giving people opportunities. When you give that person an opportunity to fail, so what? I’m telling you right now, if you allow me to fail, it will be easier for me to succeed because I’m not carrying the weight a whole group on my back,” Richardson said. “Everyone else makes mistakes, let me make them too and then show me what you need from me.

“What’s the return on investment? As an employee, I can’t give you anything but performance. If you just treat me with dignity and respect, you’d be surprised what I can do for your organization.”

NUWC Newport is a shore command of the U.S. Navy within the Naval Sea Systems Command, which engineers, builds and supports America’s fleet of ships and combat systems. NUWC Newport provides research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater  systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures associated with undersea warfare.

NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869.  Commanded by Capt. Michael Coughlin, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.