Diversity has been seen as an ‘objective’ of HR policy for a number of decades. On the one hand because we see diversity as a lever for innovation and on the other because society wants to guarantee access to work and equal treatment of certain groups at work from an ethical and social perspective. We ask these four questions:
How are these ambitions usually translated in practice?
Which “theory in use”, with deep-seated (and perhaps unconscious) principles, assumptions and values is behind it?
What are the consequences for the individual and organization, for performance, flexibility and innovative power (generativity)?
What can you do differently and how will that promote the ‘generative capacity’ of the organization and the integration of ‘disadvantaged groups’?
Common Practices ?
A diversity policy usually includes:
Guidelines to diversify the ‘influx of new employees”
Diversity training (with various approaches)
Wanting to make it ‘smart and measurable’, the policies mainly focus on the measurable things (i.e. composition)
A policy on ‘non-discrimination’ (although discrimination of ethnic minorities and elderly to access the workplace and of women in terms of equal pay and equal career opportunities still persist)
A few things stand out :
Composition and repartition are often the main focus, sometimes even with quota or desired composition percentages of boards of directors, etc … You could call this static diversity and you can find it in things such as:
balance between men and women in a team
percentages of target groups (e.g. disabled people, people with a migration background, …)
Organizations use ‘group labels’ such as immigrants, women, etc … and those groups are seen as homogeneous. Little attention is paid to the individual differences between members of those groups, and in particular differences such as approach, way of thinking, sensitivities, etc..
An impact on the effectiveness and even profit of organizations is claimed, but that relationship is not really made ‘transparent’. (and if you don’t know how that should work, how can you do it then?)
There is little focus on developing a truly divers culture and how an organization deals with diversity.
What is the theory in use ?
The ‘thinking’ behind diversity in organizations comes originally more from a generative paradigm. But in reality most diversity policies have been built in a way they still focus on containment and control, in characteristics such as :
Emphasis on ‘plans’ (often imposed by the government and sometimes also supported by subsidies)
Use of ‘smart goals’ and numerical dashboards to monitor the (static) diversity
When we talk about diversity as an important ingredient of innovation and creativity and a condition for divergent thinking, it is actually the absence of ‘theory’ that stands out. If we have to describe the theory in use then we end up with :
Innovation is seen as the product of a ‘creative’ (individual) mind (somebody is creative and causes innovation)
Innovation is the result of a top-down Research & Development policy (which is strictly monitored, planned, with set goals)
Diversity is therefore mainly seen as ‘composition’, but not necessary as a lever for culture change. We ‘change’ the composition of the board, but that doesn’t mean we change the way decisions in that board are made.
Dominant ideas on HR websites ?
A balance between men and women in the workplace leads to better business results. When organizations are able to achieve more diversity in all layers of the organization, this makes organizations more effective and profitable.(https://buroheron.nl/)
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is a phrase that refers to efforts an organization or institution can take to create a more welcoming, equitable environment that enables people of different backgrounds to succeed and for diverse perspectives to be heard through valuing individual difference, fostering cultures that minimize bias, and addressing systemic inequities. (independentsector.org)
In a nutshell, it’s about empowering people by respecting and appreciating what makes them different, in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education, and national origin. (https://globaldiversitypractice.com/)
What are the consequences ?
Even though it is a commendable goal to compose the organization ‘diversely’, that in and of itself is not a sufficient condition for really developing a divers organizational culture. The consequences of focusing unilaterally on ‘composition’ are the following:
The organizational culture changes little, even though the composition becomes much more diverse. Individuals are nevertheless brought to ‘compliance’ with the prevailing culture by all kinds of mechanisms
People ‘stop’ when the ‘objectives are met’. So in other words, the really hard work to really ensure that the differences between people are actively used to develop innovation and change capacity and thus to better cope with uncertainty, is never actually started.
It is important to acknowledge that in spite of ‘policies’, there is still a lot of evidence that it isn’t working. We see, for example, that discrimination in selection and recruitment still occurs. That certain underprivileged groups (+55, people with a disability, people with a migration background, non-native speakers, …) still find it difficult to access work, or to reach influential positions/roles in organizations, in spite off of their education, experience or expertise.
Wat kan je anders doen?
Here I would think that the most important thing is to start a dialogue in the organization at all levels and in all teams around the question: what is diversity and how do we use it to become more innovative, more resilient as an organization. How does it help us to deal with uncertainty and think out-of-the-box..
If the discourse in the organization moves away from the ‘numbers story’ and from the ‘group labels’, you create a dynamic in which people actively search for each other’s ‘being, acting and thinking’ differently in order to use it positively.
It is not so much about ‘being diverse’ but about what you do with your diversity to be more flexible, innovative and above all more inventive in unexpected VUCA situations.
A far from exhaustive list with some ideas to get that dialogue (and practice) going :
Make sure that people do their work in very often changing formats, so work with many different people in duo, trio, as a project, etc. In this way, they become more aware of each other’s differences and they can also use those differences in a meaningful way to work better (the reflection could be done in an interntision-like dialogue so that people become aware of it).
Give people the explicit mandate to take innovation initiatives and to invite others (specifically also other disciplines) to work with them on that initiative
Unia, the Belgian Institute for Equality and Anti-discrimination has developed an e-learning module (and other tools) that help to develop a diversity policy. This mainly concerns the law, how discrimination occurs and not so much about converting differences into innovation. The website and the tools are only available in French & Dutch.
Two articles discussing the need for and the impact of cultural diversity in the Workplace.
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