Workplace Diversity: Fact or Fiction?
Are today’s corporate diversity programs truly effective? That question, posed by Robert J Grossman in an article carried by the Wall Street Journal Online on June 28, 2000, will be explored as part of the review of Mr. Grossman’s article.
The concept of diversity goes well beyond the historical employment equity legislation enacted in both federal and local jurisdictions. It calls for the recognition of the contributions that individuals can make as individuals, not just as members of legislatively designated groups. It calls for management of organizations to be totally inclusive, not just tolerating those who are different but celebrating those differences. It calls for the opening of non-traditional occupations to men and women of all creeds, colors, religions, races and social groupings and for making reasonable accommodations the workplace and worklife for this to happen. It calls for diversity beyond just gender, race, or physical and intellectual abilities to include diversity in opinions, sexual preferences, social customs and mores, and other aspects of the variations in lives and lifestyles. (Conference Board of Canada. 1995, p. 1)
There is a compelling generic business case for achieving and managing diversity in the workplace. Diversity can help organizations: identify and capitalize on opportunities to improve products and services; attract, retain, motivate and utilize human resources effectively; improve the quality of decision-making at all organizational levels; and reap the many benefits from being perceived as a socially conscious and progressive organization. These benefits should be manifested in an improved bottom line and maximization of shareholder value. (Gandz and Ivey, 2000)
Achieving diversity does nothing for an organization unless that diversity is managed effectively. It is not a natural thing for people of different cultural backgrounds, religious or moral upbringings, cognitive styles, or even genders, to communicate effectively, appreciate what shapes each other’s viewpoints, debate with each other without giving offense, or otherwise get along together. When a manager says “this diversity thing would be easy if only everyone reacted and behaved the same way” or “I must be totally consistent in what I do; surely I should be expected to treat everyone the same”, then he or she is reflecting the real challenge of managing diversity.
Equality in the context of managing diversity means treating each person’s needs with an equal amount of respect and attention. (Society of Management Accountants of Canada, 1996, p. 10)
The facts present a compelling case for corporate embracing of workplace diversity. But, does the real world bear out this case? Grossman (2000) states that employers are reporting that diversity programs are making a difference and are quick to point to the success of efforts at their companies. But outside observers say that the efforts of these individual employers are not enough to address the persistent problem of workplace discrimination. Most diversity activities, experts say, have not been held to the same level of accountability as other human-resource activities. “If they were evaluated vigorously the results would be disturbing,” says Carol Kulak, management professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz. “How would you feel if you invested all this money and found out that it had no effect? Companies do it for other reasons: legal protection, symbolism.”
Grossman continues that although overt discrimination has declined, minorities and women remain a small cohort of professional organizations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1983, 3% of engineers and attorneys were black. In 1999, blacks made up 5% for each profession. In 1983, 3% of physicians were black; in 1999, between 5% and 6%. Over the years, blacks in marketing, advertising and public relations rose from 3% to 5%; financial managers from 4% to 7%.
From a financial perspective, blacks were twice as likely as whites to be unemployed in 1999. The ratio has remained the same since the 1970s. And for every dollar a white male earned in 1979 (the first year figures are available), a black male earned 78 cents. In 1999, the numbers were identical. In 1979, black women earned 58 cents for every dollar a white male earned; in 1999, 64 cents.
Diversity often takes a backseat in the hiring process. It’s “not a priority for a search firm that’s racing to find qualified executives to keep with a client’s timetable,” says Willie E. Carrington, an executive recruiter in Chicago. “We go to the candidate pool we know; identify the best candidates we can find at that particular time. Then we look for diversity.”
Some professionals find the emphasis on diversity a distraction that shifts the focus away from excellence. For corporations like Clorox, Microsoft, and General Electric, the quest for top performers is guided more by brainpower than race or gender. Their stance has been that diversity will take care of itself if people are hired and promoted based on their abilities. (pp. 1 – 3)
Mentoring and access to informal work groups are crucial to career advancement. But establishing these relationships continues to prove daunting for people of color and women. For example, John Fernandez, author of “Race, Gender & Rhetoric” (McGraw Hill, 1998), found that 72% of blacks in 1978 and 78% in 1995 reported they were excluded from informal work groups and unable to find sponsors and mentors. In its recent study of women of color in the workplace, Catalyst (1999), a nonprofit research and women’s advocacy organization in New York, found that only 50% of African American women in upper-level jobs had mentors. The percentage fell to 37% for mid-level positions and 34% at lower levels. Overall, 47% cited lack of access to a mentor as a barrier to advancement.
Mr. Grossman’s article clearly states the opinion that for many corporations, workplace diversity is largely rhetoric– a “photo op”, a chance to get some publicity, to let the troops know that the company cares about the “little guy”, and his statistics seem to bear that position out. Still other corporations engage workplace diversity initiatives as a defensive measure to help head off employee lawsuits and government prosecution.
Despite corporate efforts, bias in the workplace still exists today. Today’s bias is subtler however; people are smarter, more politically correct. People have learned to hold their tongues. In some companies, a stigma still exists concerning diversity initiatives, with minority employees wary about becoming associated with such programs, fearing retaliation or blacklisting. Until all employees of a corporation embrace workplace diversity as a tool for change – change for the better – it will remain largely as a set of affinity groups within the corporation formed around special interests that lack mainstream support and participation.
Grossman, Robert J., (June 28, 2000) Are Diversity Programs Truly Effective? The Wall Street Journal,
Online Edition. Available: http://public.wsj.com/careers/resources/documents/20000628-grossman.htm
The Society of Management Accountants of Canada. Toronto (1996). Measuring the Impact of Diversity.
The Conference Board of Canada. Ottawa. (1995). Dimensions of Diversity in Canadian Business: Building a Business Case for Valuing Ethnocultural Diversity.
Dr. Jeffrey Gandz Professor, & Associate Dean Richard, (2000). Ivey School of Business, The University of Western Ontario London, Ontario, Canada.