The Origins of Diversity Management

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In this article I would like to outline where the idea of diversity management came from, different schools of thought and how one author named Deborah R. Litvin believes that diversity can continue to be relevant in the future.

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s/ 1960s in the US gave rise to Equal Employment Opportunity legislation and Affirmative Action programmes to encourage marginalised members of society such as blacks, other ethnics and women into the workforce.

Workplace diversity became an issue in the late 1980s when Workforce 2000: Work and Workers for the 21st Century (Johnston & Packer 1987) predicted “unprecedented dramatic demographic changes sufficient to change the homogeneous workforce of US business into a diverse workforce.” At that time diversity was seen as a threat to society. Whilst ethnics of the past threw themselves willingly into the homogenizing American melting pot there was fear that new ethnics would cling to their cultural identity refusing to “melt” into American society. Metaphors used to describe this situation were “salad bowl, mosaic and tapestry” indicating that rather than melting into one another the units would “maintain their individual identity even when combined into a final product”.

Another argument advanced by early diversity consultants was that “managing diversity was a business imperative”. It was suggested that organisations should manage diversity for two reasons:-

1) to meet the threats and challenges posed by their newly diverse workforce

2) to capitalise on diversity for business reasons such as improved competitiveness, better customer service and enhanced profitability.

The Civil Rights argument was never very popular with employers. The argument that a diverse workforce made for better productivity was more appealing to corporate customers. The emphasis changed from social justice to employer demand.

Although several studies (such as the 5 year study carried out by the Diversity Research Network DRN in 2003) have been unable to prove empirically that a diverse workforce does in fact increase productivity they said there are some benefits to diversity initiatives (Society for Human Resource Management – Workplace Diversity Toolkit 2003 )

1) can improve the quality of your organisation’s workforce

2) capitalise on new markets – customers are becoming even more diverse than the workforce

3) recognised diversity initiatives will attract the best and brightest employees to a company

4) bring increased creativity

5) making adaptations required by diversity keeps an organisation flexible and well-developed.

The DRN study concluded that “there were few direct effects of diversity on performance – either positive or negative [Our findings] suggest the need to move beyond the business-case argument for advancing the practice of diversity in industry”

So what next? How can it be shown that diversity is in fact relevant to industry? Diversity professionals know that they are expected to demonstrate their efforts contribute to the bottom line or face being written off as a bad investment.

Deborah R. Litvin refers to the work of Joseph Czikszentmihalyi 2003

“The purpose of organisations – including business organisations – is to enhance human well being and so the existence of an organisation (no matter how profitable) makes sense only if it enriches the lives of its members”

According to the business case human beings are the means and the achievement of organisational goals, whereas alternative reasoning regards organisations as the instruments whose purpose is to serve the needs of their members’ development, survival and happiness. She concludes that short term thinking puts organisations at its heart but the long term view is the development of worldwide stock of human capacities leading to the survival of the human race.

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