Diversity means difference, so why treat everybody the same?

Diversity has become the new buzz word in business, but what does it really mean? Dr Jesse Olsen from the Centre for Workplace Leadership argues that there are significant differences in how organisations realise and manage diversity, and not all approaches are founded in fairness and equality.

We live in an increasingly diverse society yet we continue to hear about the gender pay gap, glass ceilings, racial discrimination and stereotyping. Globalisation and immigration trends suggest that demographic diversity will continue to increase, so we need to better understand the value of diversity and how different individuals and groups might work together in the business environment.

Leaders and human resource managers of most organisations would tell you that they value diversity. However, despite the diversity buzz, most organisations still have a long way to go before they can be considered truly equitable. The persistent gender pay gap is a well-known example, as are the continuing employment barriers for older workers. More recently, research by the Melbourne Institute suggests that there are significant gaps in arnings for gay men, particularly those who are openly gay.

Management research supports the arguments for having a diverse workforce, but only if diversity is managed properly. Diversity has been shown to increase access to diverse markets, enhance capabilities in decision-making and innovation, and ultimately improve bottom-line outcomes. The benefits of diversity for both individual employees and the organisation are commonly accepted, but there is a gap in understanding how we manage diversity to yield the most beneficial outcomes.

My co-author at the University of Texas-Austin, Dr Luis Martins, and I have identified six approaches to diversity management based on why diversity is valued and how different individuals and groups are brought together at work.

First, do we think diversity is important because it is of intrinsic value—as simply the right thing to do; or because it is of instrumental value—as something that will help us to achieve organisational goals? Organisational diversity management approaches may vary depending on whether they hold diversity as a terminal value (diversity as the right thing to do), an instrumental value (diversity as good for business) or a dual value (diversity as both the right thing to do and as good for business).

Next, we must consider how different individuals and groups are brought together at work. It is commonly expected that society's diversity will naturally be reflected in the workforces of organisations that strive to eliminate overt discrimination and treat all employees the same. However, treating employees of a diverse workforce the same is not equivalent to treating them equally. In fact, in most cases, 'same' treatment will be quite unfair. It is also important to note that treating employees differently is not equivalent to treating them discriminatorily.

This all-too-common strategy of treating employees 'the same' is known as a strategy of assimilation and entails everyone's conformity to the dominant organisational culture. Alternatively, an organisation may use a strategy of integration, which respects and encourages the expression of individual differences while treating everyone equally and even allowing for changes in the organisational culture.

In general, we argue that a dual-value integration approach best equips an organisation to leverage diversity towards its objectives while maximising the well-being of all members of its diverse workforce. However, diversity management programs cannot simply be copied and pasted from one setting to another. They must be carefully designed, customised and framed according to the context.

In the midst of globalisation, international and multinational organisations face significant challenges in this area, as centralised diversity management programs may be inappropriate for many regions in which they operate.

In a recent cross-national study, my colleagues and I analysed the effects of gender diversity programs on women's evaluations of organisational attractiveness in the United States and France. While the US tends to historically emphasise equal employment opportunities and a woman's right to work, France has historically placed more emphasis on the well-being of the family. These predispositions and values played out in the respondents' views of the organisation. Cultural, historical, legal and other contextual factors are vital in determining appropriate diversity management strategies.

Diversity is not just a buzz word, and it will shape the future of work. Effective diversity management will deliver workplaces that are integrative, inclusive and just.