Diversity Management Basics (Part 2 of 3): Why “manage” diversity?

 Photo: Suzette - www.suzette.nu via Flickr
As a White Anglo heterosexual male growing up in the United States, I often used to think, "What's diversity management all about? Why should we have to manage diversity? Why can't we just prevent discrimination, let everything go its natural way, and call it a day?"

And then I started actually studying diversity and diversity management.

(By the way, read Part 1 of this 3-part series if you haven't already, and then come back! Part 1 presents a broader view of diversity that I think is really important to grasp before you can really start to grasp what diversity management is all about.)

The problem is that "letting everything go its natural way" is very likely to lead to people hanging around with other people who are like them (often with respect to both surface-level and deep-level characteristics--again, see Part 1 for more on what these terms mean). Nature also tends to push us to be at least a little biased towards people who are not like us. All of this put together creates environments that are in some way discriminatory towards less dominant groups (without anyone even necessarily intending to be discriminatory). It's just what humans are like; social psychological research says so.

So we have to do something else that humans have developed some aptitude for: We have to exert some degree of control or influence over ourselves and our environments.

Speaking of control and influence, let's pause a moment and check our Oxford Dictionary for a definition of "management", just so we are all on the same page...
management: "The process of dealing with or controlling things or people."
We use the term "diversity management", and we may, to some degree, control diversity itself as we strive to put equal opportunity programs or affirmative action plans into place, for example. However, I think it's more important to think of "diversity management" as dealing with the processes by which diversity (on various surface- and deep-level characteristics) leads to different outcomes. In other words, returning to the discussion (and the pretty picture) in my previous post (Part 1), we want to manage the processes so that we see more of the good stuff (a.k.a. beneficial processes, like creativity) and less of the bad stuff (a.k.a. detrimental processes, like conflict). This will ensure workforce diversity leads to positive performance outcomes.

If we don't manage these processes, we leave everything up to chance. For some organisations, the good might happen to outweigh the bad, but for others, we might see the opposite. Proper diversity management is, at least in some part, about dealing with or controlling these processes and improving our odds.

Defining "Diversity Management"

So, I think now's as good a time as any to present a definition of "diversity management". This is based on various definitions in the academic literature and on thoughts about diversity and diversity management as they exist in the "real world"...
diversity management: Using human resource management practices to
  1. increase or maintain workforce diversity on some dimension(s), and/or
  2. ensure that workforce diversity doesn't hinder the achievement of organizational objectives, and/or
  3. ensure that workforce diversity facilitates the achievement of organizational objectives.
In my last post, I presented an illustration of the processes linking diversity to performance. We can update that illustration to give us some idea of what diversity management is intended to do...

This is admittedly--but purposefully--a pretty broad definition. Some organisations do one or two of these things, and others do them all. It's all considered to be diversity management, but a more comprehensive diversity management program that addresses all three points is going to be more effective than one that focuses on only one or two.

What's Next?

This leads to my next point about the wide range of diversity management programs that are out there. You have probably seen (or can at least imagine) that different organisations have different ways, or approaches, to managing diversity. In my next blog post (Part 3--the final post in this series), I'll discuss a framework for thinking about and categorising these different diversity management approaches. This framework is rooted in the two fundamental questions of 1) why an organisation might value diversity and 2) how it might attempt to bring different people together at work.

As I mentioned in my previous post, you can take a look at the published academic work I've written with Dr. Luis Martins for more details. Just click here.

Links: Part 1 :: Part 2 :: Part 3

This article was originally published in the Centre for Workplace Leadership blog. Read the original article.