Is Diversity Working?

Diversity is the latest tool in the evolving world of race relations, but is it the best?

By Robert J. Grossman Mar 1, 2000
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HR Magazine, March 2000
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 fixed a spotlight on racial issues. Then came affirmative action, attempting to bring equity to the workplace. Now diversity is the latest effort at improving interracial representation and relations at work.

But is diversity working? As it grows to include the wide variety of differences between employees—such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and more—race is becoming an ever smaller piece of the pie.

While this shift is taking place, racial tensions in the workplace aren’t going away, say some HR practitioners, consultants and advocacy groups. More than 30 years after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, these observers say that those who expected the most from civil rights advances—black employees—have not made the gains anticipated.

(For more information, see "Race in the Workplace")

And there is concern that diversity, the latest silver bullet for race relations, isn’t getting the job done. The question, then, is this: Is diversity the answer—or merely the latest answer—to race relations at work?

How Did We Get Here?

A backlash against affirmative action is a prime reason for the current chill in race relations at work, say HR practitioners and consultants. In many ways, diversity efforts sprang from that backlash. As a result, affirmative action and diversity are fundamentally different approaches to differences in the workplace.

David Benton, workforce policy adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard Commandant in Washington, D.C., says diversity is about equity, while affirmative action is about equality. While diversity efforts try to foster a sense of fairness, affirmative action tries to force compliance, he says.

And that’s where affirmative action ran into serious problems. Its goal of increasing access to the workplace by requiring compliance was bound to meet resistance, many experts agree.

That resistance reared its head when some white employees starting believing they were being displaced by less-qualified black employees. As a result, blacks who won jobs under affirmative action found that those jobs came with increased racial tension.

"Everyone [black] I ever recruited was qualified—and more qualified than whites," Benton says. "But they had to work twice as hard to get half as much back."

Nat Alston was one of those who benefited from affirmative action. Alston, vice president of the National Association of African Americans in HR (NAAAHR), credits affirmative action with launching him into HR; he has since become the vice president of HR at the State Employees Credit Union of Maryland. But it wasn’t easy.

"I wasn’t looking for a handout," he recalls. "I wanted a fair shot; I wanted folks to look at me as an equal in applying, being accepted and promoted on the job. But it wasn’t the case. I’ve had to struggle against racial stereotyping for everything I’ve achieved."

Today, courts have upheld challenges to affirmative action, and state referenda have limited its use. Faced with growing opposition—and the reality that some people in the majority will not willingly accept policies they perceive as personally threatening—proponents of equality in the workplace have rallied instead around diversity.

Too Diverse?

Diversity, which aims to create workforces that mirror the populations and customers that organizations serve, seems more inclusive and possibly less threatening than affirmative action. Some say that diversity’s very inclusiveness has marginalized racial issues. Others point out that diversity offers more hope than anything that came before it.

Benton sees promise in the diversity strategy, arguing that putting the spotlight back on race and pushing for compliance will only raise tensions and divisiveness. "If you continue to concentrate just on race, you’ll continue to get people to be steadfastly opposed," he says. "If we continue to deal just with compliance, people will continue to sabotage the system. If you broaden the scope through diversity, you’ll avoid the inevitable defensive rationalizations."

But others see big disadvantages to diversity’s broader approach.

Lisa Willis-Johnson, chair of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Workplace Diversity Committee, says that "any diversity person will say we don’t just look at race, we look at a number of factors. This tells you they’ve discounted race. Race was a sacrificial lamb to launch diversity and make it palliative to corporate America. Who is corporate America? White males. And they don’t want to hear about race."

Carol Kulik, a management professor at Arizona State University, in Tempe, Ariz., also feels diversity takes away from race. "If I were trying to significantly improve race relations, I would not advocate such a broad approach," she says.

George Gamble, director of the International Institute for Diversity and Cross-Cultural Management at the University of Houston, seems to take pages from both Benton and Willis-Johnson. "By broadening the scope, the diversity movement has diminished the impact of color," he says. "But at the same time, if [the diversity movement] hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have had anything at all."

Alston thinks that efforts to level the playing field for racial minorities are dwindling, courtesy of the diversity movement. "You dilute [race], and you’ll be pushed back down the ladder because you’ve got other groups that are competing for the spotlight," he says.

Some believe the argument that diversity training dilutes race is divisive. "I don’t play the zero sum game, that there’s only enough here for some people and others have to be out in the cold," says Sharon Parker, president of the American Institute for Managing Diversity Inc., a nonprofit research organization in Atlanta. "The reality is that all the areas need emphasis."

Who Is to Blame?

If diversity has truly turned the spotlight away from race, who is responsible? There’s plenty of blame to go around, says Tracy Brown, president of Person to Person Consulting in Dallas. "We are in collusion: the diversity managers, the consultants, the companies," says Brown. "We don’t go back and look at how race plays out because we’re uncomfortable. We say race is no longer an issue."

One reason for the increasing diversification of diversity may be a push by those who provide training. "A vast diversity industry has sprung up," says Kulik. "You have consultants, games, videos … a whole catalog of products to fill these needs."

She says that the issue in diversity training today is whether to run programs geared exclusively to race relations or to broaden programs to include gender, marital status, personality clashes and more. "Race might be a real hot button for some people, but for others it might be gender or personality," she says. "Trainers think they’ll get greater buy-in if they broaden their focus. Suddenly race is no more important than all the other concerns; it’s diluted to make the training more acceptable to the participants."

Further, the time constraints of certain types of diversity training may be a factor. "Most workshops run two days at the most," says Kulik. "If you’re trying to cover 10 or 12 diversity dimensions, how much attention are you going to pay to race?"

Evaluating Diversity Programs

Gauging the effectiveness of diversity programs can be difficult because there is little hard data on the subject. Surprisingly, at a time when most trainers are struggling to justify the effectiveness and financial validity of their programs, there is little information on diversity training expenditures, says Jac Fitz-enz, founder and chairman of the Saratoga Institute, a Santa Clara, Calif., consulting firm that provides assessment and benchmarking data for HR. Fitz-enz has no hard information on diversity effort expenditures and can offer no benchmarking data.

However, consultants and practitioners estimate that, overall, the corporate world has put millions—maybe even billions—into diversity efforts over the years.

What do businesses have to show for it? How effective has diversity training been in dealing with race or any other aspect of diversity? Most employers simply don’t know, according to Kulik. She believes that most programs are evaluated superficially at best.

"In many areas of HR, we have tools to measure how effective a training intervention is," she says. "We’re not seeing those kinds of measures applied with any consistency to diversity training."

If rigorous assessments were conducted, Kulik says, the results might be disturbing. She believes that diversity training does little to change day-to-day relations at work. "How would you feel if you invested all this money and found out that it had no effect?" she asks.

Kulik says the primary evaluation of training is based on asking attendees if they like the program. "It gets them away from work for a day; the discussions are interesting," she says. "But how does it transfer to on-the-job performance? Many trainers say we’re just raising awareness. But we don’t settle for that in any other kind of training. There should be some standardized body of knowledge. I’d like to see accreditation for diversity trainers."

Elissa Perry, professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, says, "there’s disincentives to do evaluations. You might find out the programs are costly and not very effective."

One study suggests that this is exactly the case. The nonprofit New York-based research organization Catalyst recently asked black women if diversity programs were effective in addressing subtle racism; 64 percent said no. Only 12 percent said black women have benefited from diversity initiatives to a great or very great extent.

Such negative information won’t help employers much in a court of law. Kulik says that employers may not want to know the truth—that some companies offer diversity training simply to gain legal protection and make a symbolic gesture. Perry, who has studied diversity training assessment, agrees. "Ignorance is often bliss when it comes to shielding yourself from potential lawsuits," she says. "You want to be able to show you’re addressing the problem, and don’t really care if you’re solving it."

Brown is of a similar mind. "We don’t want to correct our behavior," she says. "Most people are spending their energy trying to avoid getting into trouble."

Some Successes

Yet, despite the criticism, most companies are sticking with diversity. Some companies promote diversity through internal programs aimed at making minority employees feel valued and beefing up their numbers—particularly in management and executive ranks. And some claim to be having success.

IBM is one example. In 1995, IBM launched eight executive-led task forces on women, men, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, gays and lesbians and employees with disabilities.

Ted Childs, vice president for global workforce diversity in Armonk, N.Y., explains: "We asked [the task forces] to look at IBM through their constituency and answer, ‘What was required for your group to feel welcome and valued throughout IBM?’ and ‘What could we do in partnership to maximize your productivity? How could the company better approach your constituency to influence your buying decisions?’

"The intent was for us to identify anything where change would make things better. We looked at recruiting, mentoring, stereotyping and external agencies we should work with," Childs says.

One task force recommendation led to the creation of local diversity network groups. These groups, also called affinity groups, enable workers with similar characteristics—such as race—to meet, in person and electronically, to support each other and focus on work-related issues that affect them.

Of the 80 network groups for IBM employees in the United States, 17 are for black employees.

Childs credits the programs and open communications with improving IBM’s racial profile. "We’ve increased the number of African American executives from 62 to 115 from January 1996 to September 1999," Childs says. "During the same period, women of color, predominantly African American and Hispanic, have increased from 17 to 54. Overall, African Americans hold 5 percent of our executive positions."

Holding Managers Accountable

Carrier Corp., the Syracuse, N.Y.-based heating, air conditioning and refrigeration firm led by CEO John Lord, also is making race a top priority. Each of Carrier’s seven business units formed diversity councils. Members run the gamut, from non-exempt staff to executives. The councils developed diversity business cases for their units, weighing the needs of customers, employees and other stakeholders.

Carrier developed its program with the assistance of John P. Fernandez, president of ARMC Consultants in Philadelphia. The program requires each business unit to develop and monitor its own diversity plan. Business unit presidents and their direct reports will sit down quarterly with Lord and Rejeana Pendleton, manager of staffing and workforce diversity, to check progress.

Among the priorities: more black executives. Currently seven of the 176 top executives, or 4 percent, are black. "We do a good job of recruiting and training people, but they get lured away," says Pendleton.

Lord plans to include diversity progress in his annual review of each top executive, Pendleton says. Lord’s commitment has Pendleton optimistic about increasing the numbers. "He’s holding our executives accountable for how they’re making an impact, and it won’t happen unless the top guy is committed."

Perry agrees that commitment at the top is vital. "There’s no proof that the programs will work without management support," she says. "Often, along with being short-term training interventions, they’re not tied to the rest of the organization. There’s no follow-up, no tie to compensation."

What’s the Answer?

Can we increase the slow assimilation of black employees into the workforce at entry levels and at leadership levels? And is diversity the best way to do it?

The experts interviewed for this article hold varying opinions on diversity programs, but most agree that today’s version of these programs is not the ultimate answer.

Alston says that "diversity training is a fad. It’s just somebody to punch a ticket that says we’ve had it and then lets us go back to business as usual."

Parker believes improvement is possible, but she says employers have to move beyond affirmative action and diversity as we know them. "You do it through organizational transformation, by changing our institutions, by managing diversity as a strategic initiative, just like total quality," she says.

Fernandez says companies should focus less on diversity programs and more on developing practices linking managers’ compensation and advancement to their success at recruiting minority employees.

Employers also should stop separating diversity from other areas of HR, counsels Murray Dalziel, managing director of Organizational Effectiveness and Management Development Services at the Hay Group in Philadelphia.

"Return diversity to within the traditional management development areas," Dalziel says. "Admittedly, the legal threats make it convenient to develop a diversity sub-function, but it’s potentially dangerous if it’s not integrated with other aspects of leadership training."

Dalziel believes that diversity should be folded into the portfolio of the person in charge of leadership and staff development—usually, the HR chief. Having a different point person for diversity, as many corporations do, may make diversity and race more visible but also may let the employer compartmentalize these issues. Diversity and race relations then become fragmented, separated from HR’s job of building an effective workforce, Dalziel says.

Margaret Simms, vice president for research at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C., finds hope in the nation’s strong economy. "During the end of the ’80s and early ’90s the issue of race and equal opportunity was very divisive because of affirmative action," she says. "The opportunities for some groups appeared to be at the expense of others. But now, as we enter the 21st century, the economy is doing well. It’s a good time for people to give thought to how to utilize all the talent that may be available."

Robert J. Grossman, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

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