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Diversity awards can mask real problems

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Diversity awards can mask real problems

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Diversity is one of the more interesting areas of modern working life.  It is undoubtedly crucial to the creativity of our organizations, but I can’t help but feel it often gets a bit misguided in its devotion to identity based diversity rather than ideas based diversity.

In The Difference Scott Page highlights four things needed for diversity to come into its own.

  1. The problem needs to be tough enough that no single person will always come up with a solution
  2. The team members need to have some intelligence in the general area of the problem
  3. The team members need to be able to incrementally improve solutions to the problem
  4. The team needs to be large enough to have a genuinely diverse talent pool

Of course, it’s probably fair to say that the notion of idea diversity is not particularly fundamental to the billion dollar diversity management industry that has mushroomed in recent years.  An interesting recent study from the University of California, Santa Barbara, highlights the poor success record of many organizations with supposed diversity initiatives.  Indeed, it goes as far as to suggest that many such programs end up doing more harm than good.

The research looked at the perceptions of a fake company amongst a mixed group of 135 Latino and White participants.  They were asked to rate the company on measures such as fair treatment of minority employees.  Before doing so, they were also asked to complete a survey that was designed to gauge their views on society as a whole, and in particular how fair it is.

When judging the merits of the company, they were divided into two groups.  One group was shown a profile of the company complete with numerous awards related to their success in diversity related areas.  The second group was shown a profile where the awards won by the company were more general.

Following this, each participant was asked to read a newspaper article whereby the company in question was being sued for discrimination by a Latino worker.  The employee was claiming a lack of opportunity, support and development at the company due to his ethnic background.

The participants were then asked to rate how fairly they believed the company treated minority employees generally, and their thoughts on the discrimination case.

It emerged that those in the group exposed to the diversity award winning description believed that the company was fair in its treatment of minorities.  What’s more, this was particularly so amongst the Latino participants, who were particularly scathing of the discrimination claimant.

“These findings are consistent with the idea that among those who already perceive the status quo as fair, diversity initiatives signal that minority employees are treated fairly within an organization, and hence are unlikely to be discriminated against,” they write in the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. “As a result, their claims are seen as unfounded.”

They conclude that it’s important to understand the impact having diversity programs can have on perceptions of fairness in the workplace, and how they can sometimes mask problems that really do exist.

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