DEFINING MANAGING DIVERSITY: By Winston Mattis

 

In this brief article, WINN explores the definition of managing diversity. What does managing diversity mean in today’s management parlance? WINN concludes that managing diversity has always been part and parcel of the management landscape. Managing diversity, for WINN, is simply part and parcel of the humanist approach to managing people in the workplace and managing in an evidence-based way. More importantly, it is a system of corporate governance in which group membership identifiers such as race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, do not become the basis for a person’s identity. Rather, membership in any one or more of these groups, are part and parcel of an entire human being identity.

So, what is managing diversity in today’s parlance? Seen from a US perspective, ‘Diversity management’ is supposed to represent a break from equality concepts such as equal opportunity and affirmative action (Thomas, 1990 ; Thomas and Ely, 1996). However, this distinction and implicit sequencing between diversity management and supposedly earlier equality and affirmative action laws may not hold in all countries around the globe. For instance, in the European Union, notions of diversity management and equality seem to be growing in parallel, and diversity management is sometimes seen as a vehicle towards the institutionalization of equality and/or positive action legislations (Klarsfeld, 2010). As an example, in France, debates about diversity management and discrimination grew simultaneously rather than in succession to one another (Klarsfeld, 2009).

Diversity Inc.’s working definition of diversity management is:

“Diversity management is the strategy of using best practices with proven results to find and create a diverse and inclusive workplace. Successful strategies link diversity progress directly to business results. Best practices include effective use of employee resource groups, diversity councils, mentoring and sponsorship, and supplier diversity.

Halifax School Board defines diversity management this way:

Diversity management is the planning, developing and managing of human resources, while acknowledging and valuing the similarities and differences all employees bring to the workplace.  The primary principle of diversity management suggests that organizations will enhance their strategic and competitive advantage through assisting all employees to work and develop to their full potential.

Organizations have always been diverse. In North America, for instance, regional differences have always been managed in organizations. The Southern drawl is an accent that is different than the accent of the native New Yorker. The accent of Newfoundlanders is different than that of an Ontarian.  Managing the differences in accents has always been a feature of the North American workplace as people move within the country. No two persons are alike.

Every manager is distinct and unique. As a consequence, organizations have always had to manage differences in people within their employ. Every day corporate institutions mobilize resources to achieve its stated organizational goals and objectives, including human capital. Humanist, management theories matured by responding to differences in people within organizations. Virtually all humanist management theorists offer varying approaches to managing people differences within organizations. Today, there is a plethora of approaches to people management within enterprises. All of these approaches deal with diversity, in one form or another, even if not explicitly stated. The point is that good management has always been responsive to the differences in people.

People issues arise in every organization and management and leadership get mobilized to achieve a productive, high capacity, achievement-oriented enterprise for the mutual benefit of all of the stakeholders in the corporate, holistic system.  Employees are motivated to join and/or stay in an organization for a variety of reasons. Political theory tells us that people are rational beings that will act in ways to maximize their own self interests. In making this statement, political theory makes no distinction between people on the basis of characteristics such as race, gender identity, religion, etc. Therefore, peole within any organization exhibit a variety of anchors in the execution of their work and tasks. Corporations, on the other hand have an interest in promoting and benefitting from merit and to conduct its business in ethical and socially responsible ways. All organizations benefits from a body of people who govern the organization’s activities and operational direction.

Contemporary definitions of managing diversity miss the mark because they makes “diversity” the object of management instead of people, inter-personal and inter-group issues within an organization. People are managed. People issues get managed.  People’s attitudes as expressed in their behaviour can be managed. Inter-personal issues get managed. Organizational process malfunctions are ripe for management. This amorphous thing called “diversity” exists in way too much flux to be managed. What exactly does one manage when we say managing diversity? Managing diversity says nothing about what exactly is being managed. Diversity, in many ways, is simply a description of a statistical state of being. So, a workforce census can provide information about the mix of people within the organization? Issue one is what are the variables one uses to study the diversity? So what? Those with the power to define also have the power to obliterate. So, a member of a hate group at the helm of an organization can, theoretically define diversity in ways that exclude characteristics s/he hates.

It cannot be seriously argued that the most statistically diverse organization is necessarily one in which discrimination, and or social injustices are absent. In fact, a powerful argument can be made that such an organization may well experience more inter-group and intra-group conflicts at the early stages of that organizational mix.

So, WINN’s position is that “managing diversity” is a system of corporate governance that commits and equips the organization’s operations, its leadership and all “peoples” to be responsible and accountable for serving one another’s needs and aspirations as everyone individually, and jointly work to achieve corporate goals and objectives.  In this definition all employees and persons interested in working for the organization are actors. All are servants working jointly to achieve the organization’s objectives. It mandates mutual service to one another within the organization and recognizes that people have to learn how to do that. Within this definition, leaders are learners as they work hard to understand inter-personal, group, inter-group, and intra-group differences to resolve organizational issues. Managers in this model know that they do not know, but are savvy enough to know that they need to lead from behind as they gather, interpret and act upon evidence. In this model, managers and leaders subscribe to the belief that any observed behaviour can possibly have a multiplicity of explanations. Yep, leaders in this model understand that people issues are training ground to heighten their understanding of the human condition as evidenced in the particular workplace. Group membership is not necessarily more important than individual’s desires and personal identity. Leaders in this model remain completely open as they navigate through historical facts, personal tragedies, experiences with illness, family dysfunctions, and every other known human condition.

Of course, WINN’s knows that its approach to the question of “managing diversity” may not be popular as it is a radical departure from what currently exists in the market place.