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Introduction to the Human Resources Discipline of Diversity
Scope—The Diversity Discipline deals with the qualities, experiences and work styles that make individuals unique—age, race, religion, disabilities, ethnicity, etc.—as well as how organizations can leverage those qualities in support of business objectives. It also includes matters that focus on diversity-related careers, communications, legal and regulatory issues, technology, metrics and outsourcing, as well as effective diversity practices and global diversity issues. It touches on but does not primarily deal with federal, state and local equal employment opportunity laws. These are encompassed under the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Topic within both the Staffing Management Discipline (for EEO matters arising in the pre-employment context) and the Employee Relations Discipline (for EEO matters arising within the employer-employee relationship).
The Diversity Discipline deals with the qualities, experiences and work styles that make individuals unique—age, race, religion, disabilities, ethnicity, etc.—as well as how organizations can leverage those qualities in support of business objectives. Studies show that teams or organizations with greater diversity tend to have available a richer set of ideas, perspectives, definitions and approaches to a business issue. See, Diversity Finds Its Place and Moving Forward with Diversity.
The field of diversity management encompasses specialized applications of practices that cross all HR Disciplines. These include the following:
• Careers in diversity management.
• Diversity-related communication. See, e.g., Online Diversity Communications: Keep It Real.
• Effective practices in diversity management.
• Global diversity management.
• Diversity management metrics. See, e.g., Diversity Management Series Part II: Measuring ROI for Diversity Management.
• Outsourcing in diversity management.
• Technology in diversity management.
For a report on the state of the art of diversity management, see The 2007 State of Workplace Diversity Management Survey Report.
It is important to understand the definitions of and relationships between various terms used in the field of diversity management. See, Glossary of HR Terms. A number of these terms are discussed below.
Diversity has many definitions. Frequently, organizations will adapt the definition to their specific environment. Generally, diversity refers to the similarities and differences between individuals accounting for all aspects of one’s personality and individual identity. The dimensions of diversity typically include, but are not limited to, the following:
• Age. See, e.g., Managing the Maturing Workforce.
• Disability. See, e.g., Employing People With Disabilities.
• Ethnicity/National origin.
• Family status.
• Gender identity.
• Generation. See, e.g., Generations Toolkit.
• Geographic background.
• Life experiences.
• Organization function and level.
• Physical characteristics.
• Religion, belief and spirituality. See, e.g., Religion in the Workplace Toolkit.
• Sexual orientation.
• Thinking patterns.
Diversity provides the potential for greater innovation and creativity. Inclusion is what enables organizations to realize the business benefits of this potential.
Inclusion describes the extent to which each person in an organization feels welcomed, respected, supported and valued as a team member. Inclusion is a two-way accountability; each person must grant inclusion to others and accept inclusion from others. In such an environment, every member will tend to feel more engaged and more enabled to fully contribute toward the organization’s business results. This requires people from diverse backgrounds to communicate and work together, and understand each others’ needs and perspectives—in other words, cultural competence. See, An Inclusive Workplace: How To Know One When You See One.
Intercultural sensitivity and cultural (or intercultural) competence are characterized by sensitivity to differences among, and effectiveness in communicating and working with, people from different cultural backgrounds. People are similar or different to varying degrees across all dimensions of diversity. Research shows that people who are substantially alike tend more easily to communicate with and to understand each other. People who are very different tend to confront more obstacles to effective communication and mutual understanding. Research also shows that people consistently overestimate their intercultural competence, which poses a particular challenge for HR professionals. See, Holidays Toolkit.
Relationship with Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action
There is widespread confusion about the relationship between diversity and inclusion on the one hand, and equal employment opportunity (EEO) (in both staffing management and employee relations) and affirmative action on the other. This traces to the historical evolution of these complementary yet distinct concepts. In the United States, the legal framework for EEO began in the 1960s with the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and continued with the enactment of additional antidiscrimination laws through the 1990s. For additional resources, see the Legal Issues section of SHRM Online.
EEO concerns fairness and equality of treatment for specific designated protected classes as defined by law. EEO means that the employer gives equal consideration for a job and in terms and conditions of employment to all individuals, and that the employer does not discriminate based on race, color, religion, age, marital status, national origin, disability or sex.
Affirmative action was introduced in the U.S. via the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and was further defined by Executive Order 11246 of 1965 and subsequent legislation. Affirmative action requires government contractors proactively to help overcome current effects of institutional racism and bias to achieve the objective of equal employment opportunity. According to the Office of Federal Contracts Compliance Programs (OFCCP), “expanded efforts in outreach, recruitment, training and other areas are some of the affirmative steps contractors can take to help members of the protected groups compete for jobs on equal footing with other applicants and employees.”
EEO and affirmative action are primarily matters of legal compliance, although they do help to create a workplace that is more supportive of all people and more diverse in terms of the specific included dimensions of diversity.
Many early diversity programs grew out of a company’s EEO and affirmative action programs. Companies began seeing business opportunity in focusing on awareness and sensitivity training, and later on building inclusion and intercultural competence. But the diversity discipline has evolved well beyond EEO and affirmative action compliance. Diversity and inclusion are aimed at realizing competitive advantage and business opportunity. See, Workplace Diversity: Leveraging the Power of Difference for Competitive Advantage.
The interrelationship among EEO, affirmative action, diversity and inclusion persists. Progress in each of these areas reinforces and helps to achieve the objectives of the others.
The Business Case for Diversity
The business case for diversity is an organization’s statement of purpose in working on diversity and inclusion. There are many valid reasons for doing such work. The most effective reasons for any particular organization are aligned directly with that organization’s key business objectives. Typically, these are the business objectives on which organizations measure and compensate their senior leadership’s performance. In for-profit companies, these objectives will relate to factors like sales, market share, profitability, corporate social responsibility and reputation.
Design of a Diversity Initiative
Effective diversity initiatives require starting, planning, speaking and acting solely from key business priorities. See, The Case for Strategic Diversity and Realizing the Full Potential of Diversity and Inclusion as a Core Business Strategy. The design and implementation process should adhere to these principles:
• Engage the CEO, senior leadership and other key stakeholders throughout the process.
• Focus on achieving business results.
• Start from and stay aligned with business purpose.
• Be grounded in ownership and accountability.
• Plan ongoing internal and external communication to inform, engage and manage expectations.
Addressing these design and planning questions will produce a diversity initiative that addresses the following issues:
• The key business priorities the initiative will help meet.
• The changes in the workforce that are needed to help meet business priorities.
• The changes in the work environment that are needed to help meet business priorities.
• The elements of a diversity initiative that will be put in place to achieve the needed changes.
The design process should address two additional areas—metrics and diversity training. Metrics can be designed once the needed changes are identified. Training may be designed to close specific gaps that are subsequently recognized. Both then are integral parts of the overall initiative.
Elements of a Diversity Initiative
The diversity initiative is an organization’s formal strategic plan for addressing diversity and inclusion. See, Responses to Diversity: Approaches and Initiatives. Effective initiatives tend to exhibit several characteristics. For example, they:
• Directly align with the organization’s key business objectives.
• Focus on implementing specific changes to the workforce and workplace that will help achieve needed business results.
• Fully engage the CEO and senior leadership team in accepting accountability for progress and results.
• Reflect the organization’s current level of intercultural competence and capacity to accept cultural change.
• Use a strategic and ongoing approach to employee communication.
The most common potential internal and external stakeholders for a diversity initiative are shown below.
Potential Internal Stakeholders Potential External Stakeholders
• Board of Directors • Community organizations and leaders
• CEO and senior leadership • Customers (current and prospective)
• Middle managers • Government agencies
• Employees • Investors (current and prospective)
• Employee network groups • Labor organizations (e.g., unions, work groups)
• Prospective employees
• Suppliers (current and prospective)
Each stakeholder group has its own needs that will tend to uniquely shape an organization’s diversity initiative. Successful initiatives identify the primary stakeholders in two domains:
• Stakeholders whose needs are most important and relevant to, and thus should most strongly influence, that organization’s diversity initiative.
• Stakeholders whose actions and behavioral change are most important to achieving the goals of the diversity initiative.
Domestic versus global scope
An organization’s geographic footprint encompasses the regions in which it and its customers are located. It may be exclusively domestic or it may be global. Combined, the primary stakeholders and the organization’s footprint help determine whether the diversity initiative should have a domestic or global scope.
Compared to most domestic initiatives, global diversity initiatives will be concerned with a richer and more complex set of issues. This stems from the wider range of cultural norms represented among all the stakeholder groups. Global initiatives tend to be successful only when they are adapted to and reflect the unique cultural norms and needs of each region or country. Diversity practitioners need strong intercultural competence regardless of the scope of the initiative.
Typical areas of focus
Comprehensive initiatives focus on revenue or analogous measures, expenses, employees, customers, suppliers and external communities. All work must be tailored to the organization’s specific business needs. See, Outcomes of Diversity Initiatives and The Impact of Diversity Initiatives. The table illustrates representative areas of focus for a diversity initiative.
Focus Sample Action Steps
Revenues • Multicultural marketing, focusing on existing or new domestic or international markets
• Build innovation and creativity to bring new products or services to market
Expenses • Increase recruiting efficiency through more-diverse sourcing and engaging employees in identifying candidates
• Increase retention by creating a more supportive and inclusive workplace, engaging employee network groups in the onboarding process, and focusing on employee needs (see below)
Employees • Mentoring
• Developmental opportunities
• Employee network groups (see below)
• Process and policy improvement (e.g., performance management, succession planning, benefits)
Customers • See Revenues, above
• Build internal capacity to understand evolving and new customer needs
Suppliers • Develop Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprise programs
• Supplier development
External communities • Engage employee network groups
• Develop relationships with associations to provide executive developmental opportunities and build reputation
Employee network groups
Employee network groups (ENGs), also called affinity or resource groups, are a popular element of diversity initiatives, especially in organizations with more than 1,000 employees. ENGs are groups of employees that come together voluntarily, either guided by the organization or on their own. Groups form around the interests and needs of a particular part of the employee population or a common interest. Examples include race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, parental status, national origin, religion or belief, or generation.
Common objectives for ENGs include engaging employees, increasing diversity, providing developmental and networking opportunities, and ensuring that retention is consistent across all parts of the employee population. Two important success factors are clearly understanding the business purpose and dedicating resources to manage the relationships. See, Measure Employee Resource Groups To Yield Business Results.
ENGs may benefit members, the overall organization, and the external communities in which the organization is located and operates. There also are potential downsides to be managed, such as the group’s roles, external media presence, funding, structure, and use of the organization’s name and brand. Proper planning and effective policies help realize the business advantages while managing the potential problems. See, Inclusive, Exclusive Or Outlawed? (Employee Networks).
Pacing the change
Each organization has a maximum rate at which it can process cultural change. This depends in part on the organization’s cultural competence and the magnitude of the gap between current situation and the diversity initiative’s objectives. It is common to start small with an initiative and phase-in the objectives and action plans over time. Phasing may be done by assigning highest priority to changes with the greatest business impact and by starting with domestic diversity issues and expanding later to address global aspects. For resources on the topic of change management, see the Organizational & Employee Development Discipline.
The Diversity Function and the Diversity Practitioner Role
Effective and sustainable diversity initiatives drive cultural change into and affect almost every aspect of an organization. Diversity practitioners need partnering relationships with all aspects of HR and with functional areas outside HR, such as media relations, employee communication, R&D, marketing, legal, executive communication, investor relations and the foundation. See, First Steps for a New Diversity Professional.
The diversity practitioner requires a wide range of knowledge, skills and experience. Diversity-specific aspects include the field of diversity and inclusion, culture, cultural difference, deep self-awareness and knowledge of self, and an ability to manage one’s own biases and agendas. Related aspects include EEO, affirmative action, change management, relationship management, communication, and marketing and sales.