Dear HR Executive:
We’ve all heard about the bottom-line benefits of diversity in the workplace. The truth is, the results are mixed.
There’s a powerful and seductive argument that a diverse workplace improves performance, by giving organizations fresh insights, expanding their resource pool and enhancing creativity.
But empirical studies suggest that many organizations never see these benefits. Instead, increased diversity leads to in-groups and out-groups, miscommunication, stereotyping, conflict and reduced performance.
Often, it’s well-meaning policies that sabotage diversity programs. For example, Harvard Business School professors Robin Ely and David Thomas studied hundreds of workplaces and found that a “color-blind” approach to diversity is likely to fail.
Color-blindness sounds like good policy. Doesn’t fairness demand that people be treated the same, regardless of race?
Here’s the problem: When we pretend we’re all alike, conversations about diversity don’t happen. Everyone makes nice – but people never get a chance to grapple with their differences.
I know of a company that’s rightfully proud of its track record on hiring. It’s gone out of its way to bring in gays, African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants. But few of them stay for very long.
Yes, they’re treated fairly. But the company has an inflexible culture and expects its employees to get with the program. “Here’s the problem,” says one employee (who happens to be white): “We hire for differences. But once you get here, everyone's expected to be the same.”
The profs concluded that diversity does deliver bottom-line benefits for some companies – but only if there’s an organizational culture that explicitly acknowledges differences and encourages people to bring all relevant insights and perspectives to their work. Conversations about differences can get messy and create friction – but it’s the kind of friction that sparks new thinking and moves organizations forward.
This is a touchy subject. On the one hand, companies need a strong vision and clearly defined path. Everybody should be pulling in the same direction. Is it possible to keep your focus and still welcome different points of view?
What about your organization? How does it encourage diversity, not only in the org chart, but in its thinking? How do you handle the inevitable conflicts that arise when people from different backgrounds come together? And how do you keep different people working effectively toward common goals? Let us know your best ideas for making diversity work.
Editor, HR Cafe Training Center