Is Diversity In The Eye of the Beholder?

Historically, diversity in organizations has meant the hiring and retention of people from historically underrepresented ethnic, gender and racial backgrounds as a means of remedying past inequalities and benefitting the organization's bottom line at the same time. Many of these programs focus almost exclusively on increasing racial diversity. Despite the noble goals of racial diversity iniatives, recent research suggests that an organization's failure to clearly define what type of diversity is sought can actually result in a diversity program that hurts racial minority groups. In a study recently published in Psychological Science titled, Diversity Is What You Want It To Be: How Social Dominance Motives Affect Diversity Construals, researchers Miguel M. Unzueta, Eric D. Knowles and Geoffrey Ho studied how individuals broaden or narrow their perception of diversity in order to legitimize their support for or opposition to racial diversity iniatives. The study was designed to measure how individuals defined and measured diversity when the organization was unclear on how it should be measured. The results were not surprising to the researchers. As predicted by the researchers, individuals with anti-egalitarian sentiments broadened their definition of diversity to include occupational diversity when faced with an organization with low racial homogeneity, but high occupational homogeneity as a means of supporting their opposition of programs that promote racial diversity. By contrast, it was found that individuals with egalitarian sentiments when faced with high racial homogeneity, but low occupational homogeneity narrowly construed their definition of diversity to exclude occupational diversity as a means of maintaining their support for racial diversity iniatives. The results of this study make it clear that despite decades of work by individuals across this nation to foster inclusion and build organizations that more clearly reflect society, poorly defined diversity iniatives have very little chance of success. The individuals spearheading an organization's diversity iniatives should clearly define the types of diversity sought by the organization. If the goal of the organization is to increase the presence of racial minorities at the executive level that should be expressed clearly in the diversity plan. For example, in an organization where the iniative is defined as "increasing the diversity of our workforce" without further description, one could perceive the present level of diversity in a number of ways based on an individual's personal viewpoint. If the company is racially diverse, but not occupationally diverse, individuals who do not support racial diversity will point to the sheer number of minority employees as proof of the diversity of the organization, while individuals who do support racial diversity will point to the absence of minority executives to support the position that the organization is not diverse. This type of perception based diversity is not helpful to the racial minorities or the organization as a whole because it promotes divisions instead of inclusion, but can be avoided with a clearly defined message such as "increasing the diversity of our executive workforce." If the organization's diversity goals are to be clear to those within and without the organization, many organizations are going to have to re-evaluate their commitment to diversity. Many organizations have been deliberately unclear in defining diversity in order to take advantage of the individual perceptions discussed in the study. Nevertheless, based on the recently published results from the study it should be clear that this approach is not an option for an organization that truly has a commitment to racial and ethnic diversity. Diversity leaders within organizations have to be proactive in clearly defining the type of diversity sought by the organization so that there is very little room for an individual's perception to make a difference in the success or failure of the iniative. Rasheed McWilliams is a Partner at the Adli Law Group P.C. Rasheed has been involved with diversity iniatives at law firms for over 10 years. He is a graduate of Morehouse College with a Bachelors of Science in Chemistry and earned his J.D. from New York University School of Law.

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