Marking 50 Years Since the Civil Rights Act

By Henry G. Jackson May 22, 2014

June CoverArguably, no single piece of legislation has affected the American workplace as greatly as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title VII, the law prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

It ushered in a new era for HR. As this month’s cover story explains, Title VII forced a dramatic shift in employment practices. While the concept of equal opportunity seems commonplace now, it was exceptional not too long ago. To see how HR professionals handled the seminal law at the time, I looked to old issues of Personnel Administrator, a precursor to this magazine. I found many references to “change” and “challenges;” in the May-June issue of 1966, the editors asked “selected women in personnel” whether their gender posed problems for their careers. Opinions varied, and one reader quipped, “Perhaps the men need to introduce a bill into Congress that would give them an equal opportunity not to work.” The broad impact of Title VII was clear.

In the years immediately following passage of Title VII, employers focused on compliance issues, such as meeting quotas and avoiding lawsuits. However, over the past two decades, many organizations have become aware of the bottom-line benefits of diversity. Today, I say diversity is not just the right thing to do, it’s a must—a business imperative in an increasingly competitive global economy.

We’ve seen significant progress toward fairer, more-diverse workplaces in the last half-century. This is due, in no small part, to the HR professionals who have supported or led their organizations’ diversity strategies along the entire employee life cycle.

Globalization and technology are among our next challenges. They will create a sea change in managing diversity and inclusion in the workforce that will require us to sharpen our skills.

Last year, the SHRM Foundation and the Economist Intelligence Unit launched an initiative to identify the top workplace trends in the next five to 10 years. The first report, Evolution of Work and the Worker, found rising diversity along gender, generational and cultural lines. Moreover, with technology rapidly closing divides—between businesses and consumers, governments and citizens, and developed and developing nations—there is more diversity of thought in businesses than ever before.

In today’s world, the most successful organizations will be those that understand that bringing different minds together pays off.

HR professionals must lead these efforts. In fact, through extensive global research, “Diversity and Inclusion” was identified as one of the nine core competencies HR professionals need to succeed in the practice of HR today. SHRM has incorporated it into its Competency Model, and diversity and inclusion will be a part of our new competency-based certification that we are introducing in 2015. However, our new research shows that even as the need for more robust workplace diversity programs is increasing, many companies are falling short in diversity training, metrics and budgets. This is where HR professionals can make a difference.

We’ve made tremendous progress since the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964. But make no mistake: That work r​emains unfinished.


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