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From equal opportunities to managing diversity

Posted on from Cass Business School

How are you managing diversity in your organisation? Asks professor Chris Rowley...

Ensuring equal opportunities

Despite the unifying implications of globalisation, diversity is becoming increasingly important, as workforces become more varied in a range of ways. These include gender, race, ethnicity, age, disability, national origin and other personal characteristics; along with different attitudes, needs, desires, values and work behaviours.

So, diversity management is seen as an important and powerful management tool and even HRM strategy. Earlier ‘equal opps’ ideas – where we viewed differences negatively and tried to eliminate them – have been subsumed by the way we are now managing diversity and recognising these differences as a positive.

Diversity management can also be seen as a dichotomy. First, the equal opportunities approach: with its legislative and compliance focus, concern to avoid disadvantage with equality of status, opportunities and rights are group-focused. It stresses the importance of managing and treating people equally, irrespective of differences. Second, the managing diversity approach: with its focus on an explicit holistic strategy of not only recognising, but valuing, differences to give people equal chances to contribute distinctively. This is individual-focused, and is driven by the organisational needs.

This approach shifts from the conventional legislative focus of equal opportunities to an explicit strategy of valuing differences. This distinction in diversity management can be questioned as they may not be separate but inter-dependent, with managing diversity to seek value in individual differences, and equal opportunities, to ensure that specific groups are not discriminated against.

Diversity management has also been criticised for assumptions that it brings benefits to organisations, and employees, in terms of productivity or creativity of work groups. Unfortunately research supporting these claims says that diversity is more beneficial for teams mainly conducted in classroom or laboratory environments, using students and groups with short life spans and artificially constructed interpersonal interactions.

Indeed, some studies in the real organisational contexts found an increased number of conflicts and stereotyping within groups as a result of workforce diversity. The assumption that diversity is beneficial for all organisations, in all circumstances, is also challenged. Homogeneity might be advantageous as communication is less difficult, costs minimised and diffusion of knowledge across members is maximised – albeit less likely to produce innovation compared to heterogeneous groups. Thus, homogeneity can be more conducive to routine economic activity, whereas diversity is more favourable to knowledge-based, innovative, activity.

In short, the business case claimed for managing diversity includes a better public image for organisations, a satisfying working environment, increased job satisfaction, and higher employee morale, an uplift in productivity and an improved competitive edge – especially in heterogeneous markets.

However, there is limited supportive evidence. There is something of a ‘Catch-22’ here. The benefits of managing diversity may be better realised within the context of cultural re-alignments to where diversity is valued. For this to happen, it'll be necessary to persuade senior management that this will impact positively on organisational effectiveness.

By Professor Chris Rowley

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