Organizational Diversity: How Do You Get It? How Do You Manage It Once You Have It?

hrmgrIt is not surprising that work organizations want to become more socially diverse.  Google, whose workforce of 48,600 is 30% female and whose top-ranking managers are 8% female, just announced sweeping plans to improve diversity at the company. How can they successfully accomplish this given the challenges of recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce? And once they achieve a diverse work group, how can they handle the challenges of managing this diversity?

I recently came across two articles that draw on very different settings that help answer these two questions. The first was featured in a WSJ article, co-authored by management scholars David R. Heckman, Wei Yang, and Maw Der Foo. The second was co-authored by sociology PhD student, Brad R. Fulton and fellow sociologists, Ruth Braunstein and Richard L. Wood, in the journal American Sociological Review .

Let’s first talk about how to get diversity. To do so, I’ll turn to the paper by Heckman and collaborators. They analyzed the rating of leadership performance, warmth, competence, and “diversity-valuing behavior” of over 350 U.S. executives who underwent executive development. In this group, female executives who were perceived to have engaged in diversity-valuing behavior–understood and respected differences, valued working with diverse others, was comfortable managing diverse others–were rated as less warm and given lower performance ratings than their male counterparts who were also perceived to have valued diversity.  Non-white executives who engaged in diversity-valuing behavior were rated as less competent than their white, diversity-valuing counterparts.

In a second, experimental study reported in the paper, Heckman and collaborators evaluated how diversity-valuing behavior—when a person advocated for a job candidate outside of his race-sex group—affected performance evaluations.  They found that white men get higher performance ratings when they advocate hiring a woman or minority.  When women and minorities advocate for hiring other women and minorities they are rated as less warm and evaluated lower than their white male counterparts (the penalty was worse for non-white women).

To tackle the issue of managing diversity, I’ll turn to the article by Braunstein and collaborators.  The authors of this study started with a set of organizations diverse along race and class lines: faith-based community organizations (FBCOs).

It turns out that socially diverse FBCOs “act” differently than homogeneous ones. Content-wise, collective prayer in diverse settings was more inclusive of all faiths, emphasized shared identity, and/or attempted to transcend difference.  Form-wise, collective prayer in diverse settings involved more physical interaction than prayer in less diverse settings.  Overall, the authors found that diverse FBCOs used bridging prayer practices to navigate the challenges arising from racial and class diversity.

The findings from both studies implications for whom we put in charge of diversity initiatives and organizational diversity training.

To diversify, organizations need to consider who they put in charge of the recruitment and retention of diverse workers.  It appears as though white men receive higher performance evaluations for engaging in diversity-valuing behavior so the burden of diversifying organizations should lie with the mostly white men who are rewarded when they value diversity.  Yet most HR and diversity managers are not white men. Consider the screen cap at the beginning of this post, which displays results from a google image search for “diversity officer:”

In contrast, here is a google image search for “CEO:”


Of course, making diversifying organizations the priority of white men requires a dismantling of the entrenched social network processes (e.g., word of mouth recruiting, reliance on social network ties for referrals, etc.) that tend to promote diversity in the first place.  Not a simple task.

Recall, too, that women and minorities are “punished” for valuing diversity. Perhaps organizational evaluators think it is “easy” for women and minorities, because they are more likely to already have ties to other women and minority applicants or workers, to diversify a workforce (but for white men who are mostly connected to other white men, reaching out to diverse others is “hard” work). Or perhaps, like Google has recently learned, unconscious bias impacts how those in charge of performance ratings assess workers’ diversity-valuing behaviors.  Whatever drives this, these findings suggest that organizations serious about diversifying must recognize diversity efforts in formal evaluation systems applied equally across rank and person.  Everyone, regardless of background, should get similar “credit” for engaging in diversity-engaging behavior.

To manage diversity, we learn from Braunstein and colleagues that organizations can unlock the benefits of diversity (or at least ensure its diverse members get along) by engaging in “bridging cultural practices” —collective activities that simultaneously highlight similarities and celebrate differences. Organizations can do this by taking already established routines or common practices and shifting them into practices or routines that emphasize the shared identity of its diverse members.

In sum, recognize the similarities amidst the differences.  For diversity training, this message is relevant. It implies that the pursuit of having a diverse workforce needs to be woven into the structure of what people already do, but with an eye toward recognition of commonalities across different groups. Of course, the authors even admit that bridging cultural practices are most likely to occur in institutionally flexible organizations.  In other words, organizations may have to already be committed to bridging social differences—such as the civic organization was in their ethnographic study—or else such cultural practices may fall short of navigating the challenges posed by diversity.

An organization is not likely to become diverse without effort. Just ask Google. Nor will the benefits of diversity—the increase in creativity, innovation, strategic capacity, and social legitimacy—come to diverse organizations that fail to bridge differences.

1 comment
  1. Someone just emailed me because she noticed that the first “woman” to appear in the screenshot of CEO is…Barbie. But don’t worry, it was CEO Barbie, not just any old Barbie.

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