What is the next approach to diversity management?

accapr —  12 March 2015 — Leave a comment

Darren Baker

By Darren Thomas Baker, author

What is the next approach to diversity management?

It was a rather grey, humid early summer morning in New York City when I met a friend for brunch close to Times Square. My friend is a very successful and passionate global diversity consultant who supports organisations in the design and implementation of inclusive leadership and behaviour change programmes. We obviously spoke much about diversity and the current challenges in the UK vis-à-vis the US. It seems such a foretelling conversation now in light of the widespread race riots towards the latter part of 2014, arguably the result of the continued socio-politico-economic exclusion of racial minorities in the US. Another contemporary tension concerns same-sex marriage in the US. In the UK, same sex marriage was legalised in March 2014 whereas many states in the US seem reluctant to grant this (Human Rights Campaign), with even reports of proposed oppressive and frightening legislation in some states advocating the re-introduction of LGBT pro-discrimination laws (Pink News, 2015). These examples and others highlight the tensions and paradoxes facing the effective management of diversity and equality for organisations across multiple geographies. Despite two to three decades of equality management in some regions of the world, why is it that we still hear of persistent glass ceilings, ‘sticky floors’, sexism, homophobia and racism to name but a few?

Organisational diversity practices are closely tied to legislative demands at the national and supra-national level. In the US, diversity management is linked to affirmative action, which emerged from the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s. Affirmative action is considered a relatively radical approach to equality, as in the US it demands that employers take ‘every opportunity to employ individual applicants from specific minority groups’ (Executive Order 10925). The EU has, in contrast, adopted a more ‘liberal’ approach focused on removing the obstacles to a meritocratic culture. The response by organisations operating in the EU, therefore, has been to implement HR policies that set expectations on behaviours through, for example, ‘codes of conduct’ or reflecting these in their organisational values. However, HR policies and procedures largely fail, often miserably, to grapple with the underlying causes of discrimination in organisations, such as ensuring that competencies and processes for reward, promotion and effective decision-making are disentangled from gendered stereotypes (Collinson et al, 1990, Managing to discriminate). There has also been an over-emphasis on inclusion as an outcome rather than as an approach to the under-representation of minority groups in organisations. This is a serious problem as focusing on inclusion as an outcome rather than as an enabler to diversity can dilute group identities and individualise discrimination.

However, things are changing in the EU and there is now significant pressure brewing regarding imposing 40% quotas on non-executive boards for all member states (EC Press Release). There is compelling data to suggest that more radical approaches specifically the implementation of quotas and targets are more likely to guarantee the representation of minority groups within positions of power within organisations. In the case of the impact of gender quotas on boards in Norway, the study by Wang and Kelan (2013) shows not only an increase in the representation of women on boards but also a trickle-down effect throughout the organisational hierarchy. This supports organisations in the development of a robust diversity ‘succession pipeline’.

Transforming diversity management

Neither radical nor liberal approaches seem to deliver separately. So what’s in store for diversity management over the next few years? From these criticisms, a new ‘transformational approach’ to diversity management is emerging. The approach seeks to challenge both structural and cultural inequities within organisations. First, it transforms the business practice of an organisation, such as its procurement, decision-making, recruitment, training and career planning activities. Second, the approach drives cultural and behavioural changes particularly around implicit bias, inclusive leadership, conflict resolution and leveraging critical and diverse thinking. This is based on research that highlights how changing organisational structures can catalyse the effectiveness of cultural initiatives (Kalev et al., 2006).

I leave you with three questions to contemplate:

  • How far have you really come in the representation of minority groups throughout the organisational hierarchy?
  • Are you spending too much time on PR activities that look and sound good, but engender very little long-term change within the organisation?
  • How can you redefine your diversity and inclusion strategy so to create greater change within the organisation, ensuring legal, ethical and social expectations, and increase your financial return on diversity

For further reading, please see my forthcoming chapter:

Baker, D.T. and Kelan, E.K. (April 2015) The Policy and Practice of Diversity Management in the Workplace. In: Managing Diversity and Inclusion: An International Perspective. Sage Publications.

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