Taking the Fear out of Diversity Policies

Workplace policies regarding race, gender, and sexual orientation often are borne of studies that focus on the problem of discrimination—rather than on the benefits of a diverse workforce. HBS professors Lakshmi Ramarajan and David Thomas argue that focusing on the benefits of a diverse organization will lead to workplace policies that embrace diversity, instead of grudgingly accepting it or dancing around it.
by Carmen Nobel

If you start a discussion about workplace diversity policies, don't be surprised if the hopeful topics of ethnic, racial, and gender heterogeneity lead to negative discussions about sexism, bigotry, and injustice.

"Talking about and studying diversity is often complicated and raises a fair amount of anxiety for people," says Lakshmi Ramarajan, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. "A lot of times the context of the conversation is around diversity as a problem—isolation, prejudice, conflict—that seems to be so closely associated with working across group lines and group differences. And I think that makes a lot of people wary."

“A lot of policies in the workplace about diversity are based on research that's focused on the negative.”

The wariness is due in part to the fact that many workplace policies regarding race, gender, and sexual orientation are based on studies that focus on the scourge of discrimination—rather than on the benefits of a diverse workforce, she says. In a new working paper, A Positive Approach to Studying Diversity in Organizations, Ramarajan and fellow HBS professor David Thomas argue that focusing on the benefits of a diverse organization will lead to workplace policies that embrace diversity, instead of grudgingly accepting it or pussyfooting around it.

"A lot of policies in the workplace about diversity are based on research that's focused on the negative," says Thomas, who heads the Organizational Behavior Unit at HBS. "And as a result, the resulting policies are defensive in nature, and they don't tend to produce the high quality of relationships that you need across differences. For example, there are some organizations that say, 'Never mention the fact that we have differences here.' They just don't mention it because there's all this research about bias and negative speech and hostile work environments. A lot of the research focusing on negative dynamics wouldn't suggest that you create more open interaction; it would say that you have to prescribe."

Too often, then, companies will adopt diversity policies more out of fear than anything else, the researchers argue. And this can lead to nonproductive situations. For example, a manager may shy away from constructively criticizing a minority employee for fear of looking like a bigot and possibly getting sued, thus leaving that employee essentially mentor-less.

"When you're in the mindset of 'We should alleviate prejudice' or 'We should reduce conflict,' then you're in a prevention focus—a concern with protection and responsibility," Ramarajan explains. "Whereas if you look at it as 'I want to increase relationships' or 'I want to create ways in which people have open communication,' then it's very much promotion-focused—a concern with advancement and growth."

Studying The Exception To The Norm

The researchers hasten to say that taking a positive approach to research does not mean putting a positive spin on a sorry situation—an organization at which only 1 percent of executives are minorities, for example. Rather, it means looking at the exception to the rule and studying the factors that made that exception possible.

"Most research sees the glass ceiling but doesn't explain what it takes to break through the ceiling," Thomas says. "What we want to try to do is to understand what brings about that positive condition [organically].

"Say we review some of my research on cross-racial mentoring," Thomas continues. "What we learned is that mentoring relationships are less likely to form across race than among people of the same race. But the positive approach would be to look at the research and say, 'Well, even though they may be rare, let's try to understand these positive cross-race relationships and what influences them when they do form.' And that's a positive approach, where you're focused on explaining the positive and what brings it about."

Similarly, when researching the career paths of minority executives in the 1990s for the book Breaking Through: The Making of Minority of Executives in Corporate America, Thomas and HBS Emeritus professor John Gabarro focused not on the fact that less than 3 percent of top executives were persons of color, but on the factors that led that 3 percent to success. "We wanted to understand, when people of color do break through to C-suite jobs what's the path, what are the dynamics, what facilitates it."

The Importance Of Comparison In Diversity Studies

The researchers also stress the importance of comparing minorities with similarly situated nonminorities in an organization, so as to differentiate the factors that determine success.

“Most research sees the glass ceiling but doesn't explain what it takes to break through the ceiling.”

"The goal is being able to answer this question: What is specific to the dimension of difference?" Thomas says.

For instance, in researching the factors that help people of color make it to the executive level, Thomas examined whites who plateaued, minorities who plateaued, whites who broke through, and minorities who broke through. He found that the majority of minorities who broke through to the top have had a heterogeneous network of peers and mentors—a mix of people who are ethnically similar to them and different from them. But for white executives, such network heterogeneity was not necessary for success. "So there's clearly something about having diversity in your network that's actually helpful for a person of color," Thomas says. "And you have to do the comparison to know what's different."

A positive approach to studying diversity also means a willingness to analyze and criticize situations that seem positive on the surface, the researchers explain.

"It's not only about going in with the hypothesis, it's also about being open to revising the definition of the positive," Thomas says. "I might assume that having a highly cohesive group is positive and miss that [the factors] creating that cohesion are more cultlike features. So there's a negative aspect to that cohesion. But then you can study how to have that cohesion without a cultlike aspect."

Taking Their Own Advice

Ramarajan and Thomas have been taking that positive approach in their research.

Ramarajan is currently studying the concept of multiple identities—how people manage all the roles they play in life, such as parent, daughter, and professor. "We're used to looking at conflicts people have," she says. "But there's also a contrasting narrative that talks about how great it is when you can bring your whole self to work and you're completely integrated. And there are positive things that happen when you can bring who you are in the non-work world to work. I'm interested in understanding when and for what multiple identities can be harmful vs. helpful."

Thomas is preparing a case that shows how General Electric used its internal diversity policies to enhance both its business efforts and its philanthropic activities in Africa. The case shows that empowering its black affinity network led to a sevenfold growth on the continent of Africa in seven years.

He also is researching the dynamics that lead to blacks being chosen as chief executives—focusing on the corporate structure of the National Football League to examine how an organization's performance influences the hiring of minorities into management positions, and whether the presence of minorities in senior management positions affects the racial composition of the subordinate management team.

"It's another example of taking a rare but positive phenomenon and trying to understand why it happens," Thomas says.

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
    • Linda DeLavallade
    • Principal Consultant, Cross Cultural Consulting
    Corporations will still hold on to their diversity policies for blatant infractions however, they may now need to embrace cross cultural competence skills building to develop a more accepting vs. a miniimizational workforce mindset. As business grows globally, diversity becomes whatever the 'mix' is and cultural preferences becomes more impactful to business than policy infractions. Offering a workforce a skills-based aproach vs. an atttidue approach to handling cultural differences will compliment the diversity policies. It offers a talent developmental skill that can optimize business opportunities, resolve conlicts and makes decisons for collegaues to communicate and work more effectively in a multi-cultural workplace.
    • David Gossett
    • Information Engineer, EDM Logic
    I believe the answer is to create "no majority" teams. We are taught in diversity training to be mindful of all voices, but at the end of the day, each of us has one vote. It's human nature to vote in homogeneous blocks. There is less conflict, things move faster, etc. Those dissimilar eventually leave the team.

    While everyone is hired based on competency, we advance based on member identity and style. If there is a dominant style on the team and you are not a part of it, no amount of diversity training will help you.

    But imagine a team with no clear majority. Each of us is now required to reach out to diverse individuals and build alliances.
    • Henry Maigurira
    • Executive Secretary, Pachi Global Foundation
    What is DM?

    Diversity = all aspects in which people differ *

    Diversity refers to the differences between individuals. People differ on all kinds of aspects, both visible and non-visible. Examples of differences are gender, age, sexual preferences, skills, tenure, learning styles etc. We find these differences in every workplace, though not all differences are always recognised or seen as relevant.

    Differences between people influence how they behave, feel, do and are perceived. Of course these differences also influence the way people work. Taking these differences into account helps organisations to make optimal use of all capacities and capabilities in their workforce, and thus has a positive influence on both the quality and amount of work that gets done. This is the basic goal of Diversity Management.

    Diversity Management: all activities in an organisation aimed at dealing with, and making optimal use of, the diversity in its labour force.*

    Diversity Management is a comprehensive managerial process for developing an environment that works for all employees. It encourages managers to enable, empower and influence employees to reach their full potential. It ensures that organisational systems, policies and practices do not benefit one group more than another. The idea of inclusiveness is central to Diversity Management and it addresses workplace behaviours and understanding differences while focusing on an organisation's culture and climate. Managing diversity in the workplace enables organisations to better serve their customers and clients because it gleans a better understanding of their needs.
    • Dr. S.A. Visotsky
    • Chairman & CEO, Vitech Group LLC
    Prof. Ramarajan is right about diversity being a tricky subject, however she must remember, that organizational behavior, is in fact, organization specific insofar as the diversity demographic that represents the organization itself. For instance, an ethnic organization will tend to be less diverse than others. Prof. Thomas also makes an excellent point about diversity policies tending to be defensive, which we all witnessed during the 1980's, both in USG organizations as well as in the public sector. There are many benefits indeed by achieving an established diversity within an organization. When the organization understands itself, only then will they have mastered the issue of diversity.
    • Adam Baum
    • Accounting Manager, Not Disclosed
    "Diversity" is the biggest fraud perpetrated by academia on corporate America since "reengineering".

    It is continuously argued because it is amorphous and largely accepted because it can be trotted out as a show horse in the event of an EEO action. In practice, it often results in Orwellian reverse discrimination.

    Instead of drawing employees together in a unified effort to achieve business success, "diversity" fractures them along irrelevant identity groups.

    Phd's and lawyers laugh all the way to the bank.
    • anne gorman
    • Principal consultant, work satisfaction resources
    What a refreshing way of approaching this issue. Lets hope it makes its way into mainstream workplaces. I look forward to looking closely at case studies and methods of how to make it happen.
    • Fidel M. Arcenas
    • TIEZA - Philippines
    I live in the Philippines - a comparatively small country but consisting of more than 7,000 islands politically subdivided into several regions. We have several dialects. Our national language is Pilipino, although most of us speak English. (We were under the American occupation after almost 400 years under Spanish rule.)

    Cultural differences do exist in the workplace. Those who come from the same region gravitate to the same group. This certainly creates some frictions in the workplace, although not as apparent as those in an environment of mixed races.

    Within the context of an organization or a corporation, I think that best way to promote harmony is to strengthen the positive traits or behaviors of the employees with diverse cultural backgrounds by integrating them into the organizational or corporate culture. This I think is the bigger challenge: How to establish a strong corporate culture based on the positive aspects of the members' cultural differences.
    • Anonymous
    Diversity should not be solely seen as determined by EEO guidelines but also socio-economic differences. The kid from a dirt-poor family (of any appearance or lifestyle and from any U.S. state or area of the world) who "makes good" is going to have a valuable perspective about work and how forward-thinking and goal setting can move a project or a company forward. These team members know how to "get to the other side".
    • Anonymous
    Conflict management and building relationships are key elements to advancing organizational diversity and inclusion. Leading by example from the very top and influencing middle managers to adopt an inclusive leadership mindset are essential to bring about transformational change. The test of whether D&I is embedded in the DNA of an organization will based on how problems are solved and how creativity and innovation advance.
    • Andrea Learned
    • Principal, Learned On
    This discussion will continue to be incredibly important as sustainable business practices gain emphasis. Corporations run by a majority of white males are, by their very nature, unsustainable. A business that is short-sighted enough to ignore gender, race and other diversity issues, will not be able to compete. Using this more "appreciative inquiry" style problem-solving to address these tough, embedded patterns in corporate culture should definitely help. When we highlight even the occasional cases where it's done right, great things have emerged. Think about all the small companies that have helped bring CSR into the light more recently. If no one had identified and written about companies like Seventh Generation, Interface and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.. we'd still be saying "it can't be done" or "it's a trend." They were each the rare exception when they got going with their new approa
    • Hamlin Grange
    • President, DiversiPro Inc.
    The notion of finding and identifying "positive" diversity deviances in organizations and building on them is a good one. The goal should always be more than simply "managing diversity."; The goal should be making organizations (and their people) more culturally competent. That will require a more integrated approach by considering all areas of the organization besides human resources.
    • Mathews Daniel Kapito
    • Director, NoteBook Solution
    Management has revolved and surely times, people, buying behaviour and Technology has changed. This forces managers to evaluate their policeis and strategies. Planning is becoming more and more of short term than the traditional long-term.
    Nations are joining in effort to promote common market policies and principles. This means people from different countries, culture, climate are forced to come togather to coordinate their efforts to achieve organisational goals.
    Success of every organisation depends opon the development of strategies that focus on the Positive and minimise the negative.
    No one is productive under fear. Fear has to do with punishment.
    Our environment promote the development of strategies that promote freedom and encourage people to take chance, try out their skills and ideas, not to be afraid of mistakes. Yes make mistakes, but keep the lesson. We need a new philosophy, a philosophy of unity and harmony.
    • Anonymous
    As a leader, I focus on creating an organizational culture that values customer service and is committed to making the business sucsseful. I personnaly believe that we put too much stock into immutable charateristics and we do not pay enough attention to personality tpyes and business fit.

    For example, it takes a certain personsally type to be sucessful in sales. Therefore, I approach diversity based on whether the applicant or employees has the skills and ability to be successful in this job. At the end of the day, I don't care whether you are white, black, Asian, female or whatever, as long you can do your job well and you understand the importance of customer service.
    • Ilene H. Lang
    • President & CEO, Catalyst
    I agree with Ramarajan and Thomas--taking the fear out of diversity by stressing its benefits is the right approach.

    Fear is a major problem: 74% of the men we interviewed in our series, Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives, identified it as a barrier to supporting gender equality. Some feared they would make mistakes--such as making an inappropriate comment--in the presence of women and open themselves up to criticism. Others feared they would be made fun of by other men by supporting diversity initiatives. Still others thought equality could only come at the expense of men--something we call the "zero-sum myth."

    The reality is that diversity benefits everyone. As I wrote last year on my blog www.catalyzing.org: "When the burden is off men to act macho or be the sole provider, everyone wins. They get more time with their kids and closer relationships with their partner or spouse, not to mention the freedom to define themselves according to their own values rather than traditional gender roles. And when men lose the macho 'go it alone' attitude and share more with the people in their lives, they experience less stress and better mental and physical health."

    Diversity is good for business too. Our research has shown how companies with more women in senior positions and in the boardroom, on average, outperform those with fewer. And when employees are more engaged, turnover rates drops. The New York Times recently reported that accounting firms estimate that the cost of hiring and training a new employee in their industry can be 1.5 times a departing worker's salary, so reducing turnover by 200 employees saves roughly $30 million!

    Stressing these facts can go a long way in getting more employees engaged with workplace policies that embrace diversity. Promote the positives, become an employer of choice, and reap the rewards.
    • Abhishek Syal
    • Marketing Head, ClassifiedDuniya.com
    Diversity promotes sharing of different perspectives.

    If personal ego issues are brought on the table, then it would result in conflicts. If, however, openness and 'company first' approach is taken, then it can result in better strategies and decision making at the corporate level. This is what I've observed in places where markedly diverse populations are.

    One interesting case study would be (where diversity is viewed as a plus-point) to study role and effectiveness of diversity amongst leading international business schools and how it actually nurtures to human development as an individual.
    • Marguerite Orane
    • Marguerite Orane & Associates
    Approaching the study of diversity from the positive, from the perspective of what works and why, is welcome. When we speak about "organizations" however, we ignore that diversity policies and procedures are developed by individuals with deeply held beliefs. Until managers face up to their own beliefs about others who are different, in whatever way, they will be unable to truly "enable, empower and influence employees to reach their full potential". This is the challenge - how does a leader face his/her own beliefs honestly and openly? How does a leader acknowledge his/her own biases, when it is not politically correct, or maybe even legal, to do so? Until we get to the point where we can acknowledge our beliefs about others, and then work to change them at the most fundamental level, we will be unable to create environments that are truly accepting and empowering.
    • Caroline Harper Jantuah
    • Executive Director, The Diversity Practice Ltd
    This positive, appreciative approach led my Co-Director and I to explore the success strategies of ethnic minority women (women of color) leaders in the UK. (Different Women Different Places) Through this we identified 8 key factors that they attributed to facilitating their corporate success. We now use this Factor8 leadership framework in our inclusive leadership development interventions. We also successfully used a survey that compared views and perceptions of white and non-white peers to enhance the understanding of how to effectively diversify the senior leadership pipeline of an organisation. There is no doubt in our minds that taking this perspective on diversity leads to a much more productive dialogue and subsequent leadership action.
    • Anonymous
    Do humans act all that differently from animals? Aren't we the 'honchos' of the Kingdom? It seems easier for the majority to throw crumbs and platitudes like 'diversity' at the world, hoping everyone understands the complex nuances of the word, and if that minority knows what's good for it, to abide by its edicts.

    I did not think companies still bothered with the Diversity business anymore, seeing how laughable the results have turned out - not much result! I have seen many a company create a position for a Director of Diversity, cherry-picked an "acceptable minority" in the position, only to have them run around in circles, trying to make a pointless point to employees. Nobody wins. Well, maybe someone does, actually.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Despite the need to be objective and not get carried away by a person's ethnicity, race, religion, colour, gender, etc., we rarely find organisations and nations going all-out on true merit alone. There is always a special preference for a certain type which is preferred whether it deserves or not. Thus the coloured people are looked down upon by the whites. Many organisations reject females who also do not get paid/promoted at par with their male counterparts.
    There is need to reverse such trends by considering and awarding what is rightly due.
    • Wendy Luhabe
    • Chairman/Entrepreneur, Women Private Equity Fund
    Diversity should be viewed as a tool for Human Capital development and effective utilization of talent. The greatest challenge for new employees in organizations is that they are under-utilized therefore they do not develop the confidence they need to develop and contribute their own ideas and perspectives. Companies therefore never derive the return from their recruitment efforts. Ultimately what sets companies apart and distinguish some as market leaders are new ideas and innovation.
    Companies must define their objectives and under-lying principles for pursuing Diversity as a strategy to ensure that its contribution can be measured.It must be part of the company's Human Capital development plan.
    Secondly,Diversity must be used to create a dynamic,creative and innovative work environment,most workplaces are rather stale and uninspiring.They are like graveyards to be more precise.
    The approach therefore must not be to criticize but to give feedback that inspires people to take responsibility for their development,growth and contribution.
    Finally,new employees need a sponsor more than they need a mentor and these relationships must always be arranged across gender,race and generational boundaries.
    By the way,fear works both ways....new employees feel constrained from contributing their ideas from fear of being judged,stereotyped and marginalized.
    Most successful minority groups will confirm that they had someone who believed in them,who made sure they obtained the right exposure and that they get constructive feedback to develop appropriately.I am an example of that.
    Wendy Luhabe
    Thought Leader,Social Entrepreneur,Speaker,Author
    South Africa