By Winston mattis


In the past two decades or so, a body of scholarship, intelligence and professional competencies has developed pertaining to the so called “workforce diversity”. Scores of North American workplaces have embraced the concept of diversity management, even if many only pay “lip service” to it.

Today many North American organizations claim that they value diversity and want to manage it. Virtually every workplace in North America is and has always been diverse, depending on what one means by the term diverse. Virtually is added simply because a workplace consisting of one person is not diverse. If, for example, diversity is used simply to mean the state or fact of being diverse, consisting of different people, unlike, or diversity of opinion then even the Klu Klux Klan is, arguably a diverse organization.  Why? Simply because no two individuals are alike and Klan members come from a variety of backgrounds and social experiences that help shape the way they think. Klansmen are alike in that they have a unity in purpose, a strong conviction that drives their behaviour. They are convicted in their hate for people they define to be lesser in value than themselves. Yet, the organization itself is diverse.

So, what the heck does diversity mean in contemporary corporate context? The answer to this question is consequential for the success of many corporate workplace initiatives undertaken under the diversity banner.

Step back for a minute and understand how the term diversity matured and became part of today’s management parlance.  Back in the 1980s women, Black people and persons from other cultural and racial extractions were largely excluded from the upper echelons of corporate North America. Externally, corporate North America was labelled as racist, sexist and exclusionary.  No-one wants to be labelled a racist, except those for whom it is part of their mission in life.  Similarly, men in corporate North America did not want to be labelled as sexist. Why? They all have a mother.  Racism and sexism are categories enveloped in illegal discrimination.  Along the way, the language of discrimination morphed into “differential impact” when assessing corporate policies or practices. The transition to “differential impact” matured to move away from the requirement to find “intention discriminate to justify a finding of discrimination under equality seeking policies and programs and law. So, what to do about discriminatory corporate conduct that excluded women, black people, and people of colour generally from advance to the upper echelons of corporate North America. Language such as “glass ceiling” recognized that there was something wrong with the way corporate North America recruited and promoted talent to and within its inner core.  Notions such as formal equality, affirmative action, substantive equality, employment equity found currency as a remedy for corporate discriminatory conduct.

Legal and political challenges to affirmative action, employment equity, and substantive equality gave birth to a new approach to discrimination—diversity. In Ontario, for example, employment equity maddened neo conservative to the point that the Mike Harris government repealed the legislation upon his election.

Even conservative who opposed doctrines such as affirmative action and employment equity, for the most part, do not support workplace discrimination, or discrimination in general terms.  As an aside, it is important to note that the achievement of a diverse workforce is mandated nowhere in the Americas, of which the author is aware. So, while corporate North America is legislatively barred, subject to narrow exceptions, from engaging in discriminatory conduct in workplaces on the basis of race, culture, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, pregnancy etc., there is no law requiring corporate America to reflect any particular mix of persons. The concept of workplace diversity in many ways matured to replace and respond to the language of “isms” and disparate impact. Achieving workplace diversity is corporate America’s voluntary answer, approach, if you will, to respond to workplace “isms”, discrimination and disparate impact. As such, workforce diversity is a cousin to the concept of discrimination and differential “impact”. In some jurisdictions, a mandate to produce a diverse workforce can be part of a Tribunal’s order following a finding of discriminatory employment practices.

Unlike “isms”, definitions of diversity vary as a function of organization, political culture and geography. Definitional plurality arises as a practical matter as each individual organization attempts to tailor, or not, its approach to demographic and other workforce/workplace fluidities.  Definitions of diversity tend not to highlight discrimination. Rather, it attempts to celebrate differences and makes a business case for its existence. In the current workforce climate, there are at four three broad groups of definitions for workforce diversity that have emerged.

The first group of definitions focus upon the composition of a particular workforce. SlideShare says that Work Force Diversity

“is a workforce consisting of a broad mix of workers from different racial and ethnic background of different ages and genders, and of different domestic and national cultures.

“Workforce diversity means that the organizations are becoming more heterogeneous mix of people in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation.”

The on-line Education Portal defines workforce diversity as:

[A] workforce that is made up of individuals with a wide range of characteristics and experiences. Some of the key characteristics of workforce diversity include race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, ability and sexual orientation. A company that embraces diversity can broaden its skill base and become more competitive and innovative. Workforce diversity also brings with it a number of issues and challenges.

For this first definitional group diversity is an organizational state in which a workforce census establishes the extent to which the organizational staff complement matches the representation of the relevant group in the general population.

A second group of definitions move beyond the question of representation. In this second definition, the question is not only the extent to which members of targeted groups are represented throughout each level of the organization’s hierarch, but the manner in which members of the relevant group experience the organization and its culture.  One academic institution defines diversity this way:

“The concept of diversity encompasses acceptance and respect.
It means understanding that each individual is unique,
and recognizing our individual differences.  These can be along
the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs,
political beliefs, or other ideologies.  It is the exploration
of these differences in a safe, positive, and nurturing environment.
It is about understanding each other and moving beyond
simple tolerance to embracing and celebrating the
rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual”

In this second definitional group, and as one educational institution notes, “Diversity” means more than just acknowledging and/or tolerating difference. Diversity is a set of conscious practices that involve:

  • Understanding and appreciating interdependence of humanity, cultures, and the natural environment.
  • Practicing mutual respect for qualities and experiences that are different from our own.
  • Understanding that diversity includes not only ways of being but also ways of knowing;
  • Recognizing that personal, cultural and institutionalized discrimination creates and sustains privileges for some while creating and sustaining disadvantages for others;
  • Building alliances across differences so that we can work together to eradicate all forms of discrimination.

Inclusion is sometimes tied in with this second definitional proposition, although the concept of inclusion contemplates much more than respect, human interdependence, or simply understanding.

A third approach understands diversity as cited in the January 24, 2014 issue of Forbes Magazine. In that article Forbes Magazine cites a study that provides a nuanced definition for workforce diversity.

Top performing companies have long recognized that diversity is good for business. But a just released report from The Economist Intelligence Unit finds that a new definition of workforce diversity is emerging. It’s no longer just about avoiding race, ethnicity, and gender discrimination, or even compliance with legal regulations. Diversity now encompasses values, meaning what motivates someone to join a company, embody organizational passions, and be productive for a long time.

This third definition attempts to link diversity with organizational strategy, performance, productivity and ultimately results. In some ways, this definition sees diversity as a “soft” commodity with the potential to drive the “hard” commodity of the business, or organizational enterprise. A safe way of describing this emerging approach is the “commodification” of diversity.

In the fourth definition is understood as part of workplace fairness. In this model, diversity goes beyond compliance to include elements of social justice and fairness. Though fairness is a subjective standard, one can typically tell when a practice or its outcome offends social norms, running contrary to a sense of fairness—the right thing to do so, so to speak.

Here is a different take.  Workplaces have always been diverse. Even the most seemingly homogenous group of people is diverse in thought, historical experiences, and a variety of other ways. Even the seemingly most homogeneous group of people move in and out of a variety of groups into which they maintain formal and in some cases less formal memberships.      Their individual identity is not somehow lost simply because of membership in one group as compared to the next. Put a hundred white men into any room, give them a discussion topic, let them go at it and then just experience the level of difference amongst them.  Virtually all social research explicitly or otherwise incorporates the premise that human groupings, even if superficially homogeneous is potentially infinitely diverse. Income, geography, socio-political background,  etc., are variables among white men as is the case of any other grouping. Industrial psychologists know that diversity is a feature of any grouping of people. Myers Briggs, regardless of its validity as a normative and predictive instrument, does not lump all people into a single category.

So, why is today’s diversity different than it was in the past? Here is the truth. Not all of the content of today’s diversity is different than that of the past.  Regardless of definition one opts to embrace, the reality is that the composition of the workforce is changing rapidly. The workforce is getting older for sure.  More women are in the workforce. Professional schools are graduating more and more women. The labour force is more mobile. Labour is and has moved across borders, among other things. As a result, the pool of available job seekers is and will continue to be more diverse, as a matter of fact. Geo-political forces such as the European Union have lessened the amount of immigrants to North America from European countries. And locally, the legal system has created processes to facilitate the reduction, if not elimination of discrimination. All of these separate forces converge into an organization’s employee mix. So in today’s context the content of diversity has a greater mix of people than days gone by. North American organizations must now adapt and respond to the realities of a changing workforce. Like it or not, future managers will be faced with a more diverse workforce than did their predecessors. The point, the diversity among today’s workforce is much more evident than in prior generations. However, managers have always had to deal with diversity and good managers have always been managing diversity.

The more tentacles one has along the diversity continuum, the more there are opportunities for human miscommunication, intra and inter-group conflict. But the more there are opportunities for learning at the micro levels. Today’s diversity brings the world into a single workplace, particularly large organizations. The world is knocking at the footsteps of North American workplaces either to get a piece of the North American pie, or to help North American with the distribution of their products and services throughout the work. And there is a recognition that one size does not fit all. In large organizations in which the world converges, North American values of democracy get tested as the organization, as a social laboratory, orchestrate and navigate its corporate course through the corporate socialization of people through the concept of corporate acceptable behavior, or range of behaviours. Stated explicitly, for WINN diversity is a state of corporate existence that can be measured..