law of the land to ensure equal employment opportunity. It focuses on employees. It advocates resources for certain categories of employees to ease their path around obstacles to advancement because of racism or sexism. It seeks ultimately to secure their fair treatment by giving them a path around the institutional barriers that others do not face.
Although affirmative action has achieved much progress, it has been resisted in organizations where management has not challenged the majority’s belief that affirmative action creates opportunities for certain employees at the expense of others. Management has too often been passive in helping employees to recognize that team success comes through cooperation and mutual support and that when individual team members are strengthened, the entire team is strengthened.
Diversity achieves the same ends as affirmative action but by a different path. Diversity is a deliberate business strategy to incorporate a spectrum of human resources and perspectives into the organization, with the goal of creating opportunity and competitive advantage for the business. The focus is on using diversity to improve the workforce, innovation, and customer appeal, and thus to advance the employer. The “war for talent” has successfully challenged conventional wisdom because the labor pool is changing. Minority groups entering the labor market now represent, in aggregate, the new majority. Companies must make themselves visible to the new majority as preferred employers, because people will choose to work where others like them are visible as leaders.
Companies are beginning to see a linkage between diversity and innovation. Diverse product teams foster intellectual diversity. When you surround problems with different and complementary perspectives, the solutions are more likely to be richer and more widely applicable. In other words, divergence in information gathering will lead to better convergent decisions. General Motors attributes the success of its Saturn vehicle to the diversity of its product design team. Intel also assembled its celebrated Pentium chip design team with diversity in mind.
Diversity enlarges the very notion of customer. Employers cannot help seeing the increasing diversity of their customer base. Customers want products and services designed by companies that understand their needs and respect their diversity. Who can do this better than employees with links to their communities and cultures? It seems inescapable that any company whose customers live in different cultures and different nations ought to have a workforce that is a microcosm of the world it seeks to serve. Companies have come to realize that you can sell only in the language of the customer.
Employers must give careful attention to articulating the business value of diversity to their employees to make sure everyone understands the benefits. It is a tool for creating openness and influencing organizations. Top management must be visible in promoting diversity. It needs champions at the executive level and at the unit level, where hiring occurs. Middle management, where immediate needs and long-term goals can clash, is the battleground. Managers must attack the notion that diversity is somehow in conflict with meritocracy, that it implies softer standards for reward and advancement. Efforts to broaden and transform the organization’s future through diversity should be a performance element for managers.
Diversity gives new life to organizations. Incorporating diversity into the organization vitalizes it. If the organization works at eliminating all barriers to talent, the new employees will transform the organization. By contrast, the corporate mission of assimilation, avidly pursued in the 1970s and 1980s, was merely a digestive process to herd new employees into organization uniformity. Through it, organizations could indeed grow but they could not be transformed. Diversity has become a corporate core value and, indeed, a means of survival and growth. It is no longer an option to be pursued “when we can afford it.” How does your corporate culture view diversity? What are you willing to try in the name of nondisruptive change? Management will get what it accepts.