The conversation about diversity as we have known it is over.
Much like equal employment opportunity and affirmative action, the
term "diversity" has come to represent something smaller, and with
a more limited focus, than was originally intended. Diversity has
become about representation of people of color and white women, and
in many instances, the term diversity is specifically used as code
for African Americans.
Originally, diversity referred to the multitude and full range of
human differences. We each bring our diversity, our different
perspectives, experiences, and identity, to all we do in life. As
we tap into those differences, particularly in organizations, we
bring innovation, new perspectives, fresh viewpoints to bear on the
bottom line, creating competitive advantage that only a wide range
of talents and ideas can offer.
Affirmative action, diversity
Even in the early days of using the word diversity in
organizations, many organizational leaders and members of dominant
groups would not embrace the concept that differences added value,
that differences are good for organizations. Instead, diversity
became a more politically correct term for affirmative action or
referred only to representation. Consequently, the language changed
but the way of thinking about differences, as being primarily about
race and gender, did not.
In many places the Affirmative Action office simply changed its
name to the Diversity office. Yet the responsibilities of this
function remain constant: assisting in the recruiting and promotion
of white women and people of color and completing affirmative
action reports (often more an exercise than part of a strategic
initiative with organizational backing and accountability). This
office has also become a convenient place to hire or promote a man
of color, a woman of color, or a white woman to a leadership role.
Looking closer, it also becomes clear that in most organizations,
the people in senior leadership roles in this office have little or
no influence in the organization. They may soon find themselves
labeled as the "diversity police," stuck with no career path beyond
this office or role. So while the organization may look good from
the outside for having this role filled by a diverse candidate, the
person in this role often becomes stuck, unable to move up in the
Diversity efforts gone wrong
Organizations often sabotage their diversity effort by seeing it as
a program in a limited sphere and as pertaining to only a few
people or part of a public relations strategy. Restricting
diversity efforts to one or two identity groups keeps diversity in
a box. By taking diversity out of the box a whole realm of
possibilities emerge. When leveraged effectively, differences can
provide a competitive advantage in all areas of the organization
including customer service, marketing, and product development.
Senior leaders also often sabotage their organizations' diversity
efforts by failing to be closely linked to, aware of, and
supportive of it. This distance sends a message to the
organization, and the world, about a lack of commitment to, and
acceptance of, diversity as important to the organization's
business strategy. For diversity to be seen as an important
initiative, the important people in an organization must be seen
and heard demonstrating the imperative for investing in diversity
In many cases where the diversity function reports directly to the
CEO or president, diversity is seen as the pet project of the
CEO/president and not as a core business strategy. All too often
the person leading the diversity function is the lowest paid of the
CEO's direct reports and gets the least amount of coaching and
An example of how diversity efforts are marginalized is evidenced
in the recent experience of a woman who had been reporting to the
president of a large utility company for three years under the
title of chief diversity officer. The president to whom she was
reporting had just moved the diversity function to HR because, he
said, "we are nearly finished with diversity anyway." He wanted
fewer direct reports, and the diversity function was seen as the
least critical to the business and therefore the first to go. The
company was completing a first round of two-hour diversity
awareness sessions for everyone, causing the president to feel that
the diversity box had been checked.
Another way to doom diversity efforts is to bring together or hire
a more diverse group of people without also adjusting the culture
to be more accommodating, supportive, and inclusive of differences.
Making environmental or cultural changes is critical to ensure the
survival of those who do not easily fit in the existing culture.
Adapting the culture to enable and support all people to use their
full capabilities and do their best work, differences included,
takes a significant commitment of time, effort and strategy.
Before making a purposeful effort to bring more diversity into its
workforce, an organization must establish some level of cultural
readiness by examining its policies, practices, and procedures for
any barriers, overt or subtle, that might limit a new person's
ability to contribute. One way to begin this process is to see what
barriers exist for people already in the organization. For example,
what expectations are spoken or unspoken about single people and
their willingness to work long hours or their ability to travel? Is
there an assumption that offering domestic partner benefits
sufficiently addresses the needs of people in the organization who
are lesbian, bisexual, or gay, or are all policies
examined and changed to be inclusive?
Although 80 percent of Fortune 500 organizations are doing
"something" around diversity, the overwhelming majority are doing
something programmatic, awareness or social etiquette workshops of
some kind. These efforts may leave a temporary feel-good
impression, but do little or nothing to change the way business
operates, how people are treated, or the culture in which people
are trying to do their best work.
Scores of organizations have checked the Diversity Box yet are
wondering, or soon will be wondering:
"Why haven't we achieved the results we were hoping to achieve?"
"When will the organization see the return on investment, and how
will we know it when we see it?"
"Why are people still feeling poorly treated?"
"Why don't the people we desire and need (e.g., young people,
experienced hires) want to come work here, and if they do come, why
do they leave so quickly?"
"Why are there still allegations of discrimination?"
Where do we go from here?
If people think diversity is "done," then let's lay it to rest. If
it is treated simply as an expendable add-on program or function it
is doomed, because expendable programs are cut at the next downturn
of the business cycle. If it is limited to race and gender
differences and headcount, diversity is dead.
If the original spirit and aims of diversity are to survive, the
next phase must be directly connected to the overall organizational
strategy and results. We must change the conversation from
diversity as a representation or recruitment effort, to inclusion
as a key lever for increasing operational performance.
A few organizations have washed their hands of the term "diversity"
altogether. Many others have added the word "inclusion" to their
change effort. It is not that these organizations have given up on
diversity, only that the term "diversity" no longer speaks fully to
the goal of their change effort.
Some organizations are beginning to understand that focusing on
representation alone or just awareness training will not
substantially change or improve business results. These
organizations have realized that what they are really seeking is a
diversity of ideas, approaches, and knowledge, the potential for
which already exists in any organization. Acquiring this diversity,
then, is not the goal; rather, the goal is enabling people to
contribute fully so that their differences are adding value. The
basic premise of diversity adding value is the belief that talent
comes in all sizes, colors and forms, and that organizations need a
broader range of talent than in the past to succeed.
Most organizational leaders have heard that diversity adds value,
increases innovation and creativity, and leads to smarter
decisions. Some leaders believe this to be true; many even
understand how diversity connects to various pieces, if not all, of
the business. The key to making diversity efforts yield beneficial
results is found in actually including the diversity of the
organization. Having diversity is not enough. The inclusion of all
people's different talents, ideas, and perspectives is what really
enables the benefits of a diverse workforce to be reaped.
Perhaps the term "inclusion" speaks more to the focus of an
effective change effort than does "diversity." There are a number
of organizations adopting this term and refocusing their efforts in
such a way that their work is focused on changing the culture of
their workplace to create a more inclusive environment. An
inclusive culture invites and encourages all people to contribute
their own unique ideas and perspectives to create 360-degree vision
in order to accomplish the mission and key strategies of the
organization. An inclusive organization can tap into a broader
range of information and thus can make wiser decisions and choices
about products, services, and resources. Diversity may be dead, but
the inclusion of people in meaningful ways is just beginning.
2006 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.