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Rebuilding “Diversity” Perceptions by Dr. C. Lamar Robinson
SOUTHPORT, CT –/ -- DiversityBusiness.com /- Human resource professionals struggle to leverage the concept of a diverse workforce. There are arguments that the term “diversity” is an ideal that has lost its way. One critic noted that there are at least two diversities in America. “One refers to the facts [the racial and ethnic condition of America], the other to hopes or wishes [recognition and response to the racial and ethnic condition of America]” (Wood, 2003, p. 23). When put in this context, one can understand the difficulty in managing and/or understanding the concept of “diversity”.

The struggle for human resource professionals and executives is not “diversity” itself; instead it is the expectation of what diversity represents. Those individual perceptions represent mental models that have been shaped over time. Senge (1990) describes these mental models as “...deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action” (p. 8). The process by which HR professionals manage those individual generalizations amongst hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of mental models in ever-changing, cultural apparatuses is unknown.

What is known about diversity in the workplace is that it has become a workplace phenomenon; one that warrants alternative approaches that illuminate meaning. That meaning has the potential to build the shared vision that organizations covet. While many organizations strive for a “shared” vision, the reality is a disparate mirage bound by expectations of expectations (also known as Schelling Points). A remedy for this tragic position is the reconstruction of diversity-related perceptions in the workplace.

The current perception of diversity in the workplace is flawed. One explanation for this position is that the diversity-related experiences of the workplace may have multiple meanings. Those meanings may be specific to an individual or a subgroup; likewise, those meanings may be shared between groups. The ability to distinguish what is shared and what may be sacred, regarding this “diversity” experience in the workplace has seemingly been obscured by both individuals and organizations. Consequently, there is a perception gap between what is practiced and what is experienced. Managing that perception gap at the corporate level has proven to be a paradox of epic proportions.

For example, most organizations attempt to communicate diversity using various methods such as luncheons; newsletters; and training. The most common theme is that we are an “employer of choice” or “we are inclusive”. What are organizations really communicating? What are organizational participants and learners really expecting? Who is asking? In many cases, the workplace leaves these questions unanswered and executives/managers are left managing the “fallout” instead of managing human resources for performance.

I start by posing a simple question to every reader: how do you define diversity? The next task is to determine how your organization; team; workgroup; and/or division may define diversity. When these perceptions are incongruent diversity in the workplace will continue to represent its historical workplace definition. That description is limited to representation; discrimination; and fairness. Each of those variables has a lineage of subjectivity; meaning, they are subject-relative to a specific scenario or situation. These complex situations can not be managed; and yet, managers attempt and/or pretend to do so regularly.

In order to move closer to the potential benefits of a diverse workforce we must create a better history of the “diversity experience”. We must transform our limited thinking of “diversity” to encompass the broader “diversity experience”. This process will enable both organizations and individuals to move beyond the reactive thinking that is attached to our current concepts of diversity.

As a case in point, one could argue that it is very difficult to leverage an object such as a diverse workforce in a reactionary mode; proactive solutions would seem to be more adequate for leverage. From a majority perspective, too many firms have processes that are bound by reactionary concepts, thereby making it difficult for them to understand the potential benefits of workforce diversity, let alone reach them.

Those concepts are mired in practices that attempt to diminish discrimination; bias; and prejudice in the workplace. However, managing “diversity” can be much more than dodging those factors. Organizations that manage diversity by playing dodge ball with “access-and-legitimacy” (Ely and Thomas, 1996) seemingly have a negative impact on the development of diversity-related value in the workplace. By forcing diversity without valuing its potential products, some organizations unintentionally promote a perception throughout the workforce that decries fairness. This unintentional result festers throughout society and within the workplace as it is left unaddressed. Managing those focal points must become a priority for leaders and organizations in order to reach the potential benefits a diverse workforce may offer.

The task of creating a new history for diversity in the workplace should not be perceived as a colossal feat. Neither should it be viewed as something that requires organizations and individuals to scrap current programs. Workplace participants must turn their attention away from the historic and reactive meanings related to a diverse workforce and begin reeducating themselves on the meanings and essences of a diverse workforce.

For starters, individuals must understand that they have a responsibility to participate in diversity; this responsibility has been shouldered mostly by organizations. An organization can have the most effective practices in place, yet, when individuals act in self-interest those practices will fail. That is not a diversity-related principle but a fact of life. Understanding this concept is the key to “diversity” in the workplace.

Secondly, organizations must begin to develop diversity-related processes rather than support diversity programs. Programs begin and end while processes may offer access to continual discoveries related to the diversity experience.

Thirdly, organizations and managers must begin to manage the diversity experience in the workplace rather than the “diversity of the workplace”. The latter depicts representation while the former addresses the cultural apparatuses that exist in the workplace.

This approach is not a diversity approach but a people approach to diversity. These concepts are based on perception; experience; and expectation. Our inability to understand these, as they relate to a diverse workforce, has halted the emergence of a definitive “business case” for diversity. We must create a new history for diversity by reeducating ourselves on the meaning of workforce diversity; otherwise, we will be relegated to finding value only in representation. Thus far, that approach has created a seemingly impenetrable perception gap for the last twenty or so years.

I would like to conclude that diversity, as an ideal, has emerged into an important business concept. This concept warrants a level of analysis and interpretation that is beyond what we have assigned in recent years. This fact warrants a learning approach to leveraging the concept of diversity rather than a business case bound by ROI. This path should help us gain a better understanding of diversity in order to develop the criterion and standards needed for a future business case; potentially, reducing the level of strain associated with managing this topic.

One potential method of retooling “diversity”:
  • Be subjectively open: embrace the new concepts of diversity to better understand some of the components of the diversity experience rather than diversity itself.
  • Manage your disposition and capture of diversity-related information. Be sure to help others understand that there may be more information that impacts a decision.
  • Use your own diversity-related experiences to educate yourself; adopt alternative models and apply your own individual experience. This should return a different result each time based on your thought processes.
  • Embrace the diversity dilemma. Accept the fact that “diversity” represents something different to each individual. In many cases, this social dilemma can not be resolved. However, individuals can promote enough cooperation to form a collective gain for all parties involved.

About DiversityBusiness.com
Launched in 1999, DiversityBusiness, with over 50,000 members, is the largest organization of diversity owned businesses throughout the United States that provide goods and services to Fortune 1000 companies, government agencies, and colleges and universities. DiversityBusiness provides research and data collection services for diversity including the "Top 50 Organizations for Multicultural Business Opportunities", "Top 500 Diversity Owned Companies in America", and others. Its research has been recognized and published by Forbes Magazine, Business Week and thousands of other print and internet publications. The site has gained national recognition and has won numerous awards for its content and design. DiversityBusiness reaches more diverse suppliers and communicates more information to them on a more frequent basis then all other organizations combined. We also communicate with mainstream businesses, government agencies and educational institutions with information related to diversity. Our magazine reaches over 300,000 readers, a monthly e-newsletter that reaches 2.4 million, and website visitors of 1.2 million a month. It is a leading provider of Supplier Diversity management tools and has the most widely distributed Diversity magazine in the United States. DiversityBusiness.com is produced by Computer Consulting Associates International Inc. (CCAii.com) of Southport, CT. Founded in 1980.

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