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Diversity in the workplace: how much progress has been made?

By: Jeff Sacht who can be contacted on jeffs@worldonline.co.za, or 082 4561049


1. Introduction

For many businesses, it's a disappointing and unfortunate conclusion: diversity efforts have not made the progress that so many had hoped for since South Africa’s transition to a constitutional democracy. Understanding why South African business, and organisations in general have not made more diversity progress is complex. The bottom line: to maximise the impact of diversity efforts, diversity work must be woven directly into the business' people strategies and the way we manage our businesses.

2. A Brief history: the early days of changing the ‘complexion’ of business

Diversity efforts were driven in the 80’s, and early '90’s primarily by the need to begin to adapt to the realities of a shrinking talent pool, and revised legislation ‘outlawing’ discriminatory HR practices based on colour and gender. For instance, ‘Equal Employment Opportunity’ practices and subsequent ‘Valuing Diversity’ efforts focused on a subset of the population, requiring employers to increase the presence of under-represented groups in their workforce.

The scope of diversity work expanded dramatically from 1994 onwards with the promulgation of the South Africa Constitution Act, and from 1998 onwards with the passing of the Employment Equity Act. Employers have been forced (by law) to accelerate the hiring of a more diverse workforce and to remove the barriers to employment progress for previously disadvantaged groups. However, changing the numbers has not been enough; figuring out how to effectively work together is the bigger challenge, and education about differences has been introduced.

While heeding the law is mandatory, this "extra effort," which focuses on diversity training and interpersonal learning, is still perhaps viewed as an optional extra frequently not tied to the business, and often not as effective as newly ‘affirmed’ leadership intends. While there are a few success stories (like SA Breweries), there were many cases in which participants either do not know why they are there or are not able to apply what they had learned back on the job because their corporate culture does not reinforce components of the education they receive.

3. Evolving diversity practices: the next generation

Some organisations are undoubtedly beginning to take a more comprehensive view of diversity issues, not simply completing diversity training, then "checking the box" as if the work was done but, rather, looking at how the issue of diversity impacts their ability to achieve their mission and enhance the bottom-line.

Some organisations are at the starting blocks where they are genuinely trying to understand the business rationale behind doing this work, and not just stopping there, unsure of what to do next. At the other end of the continuum, some leaders have already learned that attending to diversity issues could differentiate their organisation as an employer, vendor, or service provider - and continue to take action. Within the next 3-5 years the legislation around Employment Equity (second generation legislation) will undoubtedly begin to force employers to examine diversity in the context of not only the business case, but also the people dimension of the business strategy, which, in turn, has an impact on both the workforce and its customers.

4. Barriers to progress

One might expect to have seen more diversity at the senior levels of organisations, as well as a workplace culture that actually draws upon the talents of all - old and young, men and women, people of all colours, creeds, sexual orientations, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

But reality reveals that diversity progress is slow. Women, or blacks lead very few companies in general. In some cases, diversity has been cast by organisational leaders as not essential to business success, unachievable, and to be shelved as something to which lip service is paid to keep in with the tender system to secure lucrative government and municipal contracts. Unless companies commit to building a sustainable people strategy with diversity as a core component, significant progress will not occur.

What are the barriers to making diversity an imperative?

A. Responsibility for diversity leadership is often delegated to a staff member, or even worse, to consultants who are often poorly versed in the requirements of the law, view training as a magic bullet for changing behaviour, and often do not grasp the scope of human capital issues and challenges to be dealt with to leverage individual behavioural change, or organisational cultural change. Most often internal and external consultants are also unwilling to deal with the underlying power and value orientation blocking a company’s ability to manage for diversity.

B. Most companies have not taken the time to adequately understand how diversity impacts their bottom line, and therefore fail to recognise diversity as a competitive advantage, particularly as an employer. While customer demographics are commonly researched and applied to business practices, workforce differences are rarely examined as closely and often misunderstood. Consumer buying patterns are already changing quite dramatically with black spending power beginning to overtake that of whites. Hiring a workforce that mirrors the diversity of its customers can have a powerful impact on understanding the needs of those customers.

C. Many organisations continue to focus on short-term survival in this challenging economy, failing to see diversity as a critical priority. Creating and managing a diverse workforce is perceived as one more thing imposed on business by government. Diversity is treated as programmatic rather than integral to the business’ priorities.

D. Organisational leaders act as if a meritocracy exists, believing that talent will rise to the top. It's easier to increase racial diversity at lower levels simply by changing hiring practices, for instance. This action can also give the illusion of substantive progress. More complicated, but equally necessary (by law), is an examination of all people practices - from sourcing to development, how projects or accounts are assigned, what competencies are rewarded, and why people stay with or leave the organization.

E. Diversity is not treated with the same discipline, measurement and accountability as other business initiatives. Initiatives focused on quality have the same challenge. You can't simultaneously say diversity is central to the business, while treating it as peripheral, and expect it to have a strong impact. Specialists can play an important role, but ownership must reside with the decision-makers. Some organisations make the mistake of assigning someone responsibility for workforce diversity issues solely because of their racial or ethnic identity, rather than looking closely at the competencies required for the role and the person best suited to fit it. This does everyone a disservice.

F. We continue to be more comfortable with people like ourselves. When the going gets tough at work and we need to pull someone in to help with the project, or when it's time to grab lunch with a colleague, we are often inclined to reach out to someone whose life experience is more similar to our own. Less effort is required when we can speak in shorthand and can readily depend on people with whom we have more in common. The flip side of this issue for previously disadvantaged groups is that they might not naturally find sponsors in the majority power structure of the organisation.

G. Rather than work collaboratively, different groups continue to compete with one another. Underrepresented groups frequently compete with others for scarce resources. Rather than work collectively to bring about change, we often struggle with one another. This competition more often than not simmers under the surface, and from time to time surfaces in racial and gender conflict.

H. We do not give one another honest performance feedback. While it is difficult enough to give developmental feedback to anyone, it can be even more difficult to give feedback to someone of another gender, race or culture - for fear of being misunderstood. Whatever the reason, this lack of information often sidetracks careers, particularly for those who do not receive performance feedback because the deliverer of that feedback fears being seen as racist or sexist and thus chooses not to give feedback at all.

I. Business is too internally focused. There are diversity battles being fought right now. South African courts have already made some astonishingly bold decisions to uphold the constitutional rights of women, gays and lesbians in the workplace.

Whether you believe diversity progress is more impacted by the carrot (e.g., access to potential business opportunities and increased market share) or the stick (e.g., laws to ensure fair treatment and transformation) there is no doubt that line managers, HR professionals and consultants alike face continued challenges ahead, to realising diversity progress.

Download a preview copy of a module about the power of corporate culture on diversity initiatives from a newly released diversity workshop for supervisors and managers Click on: http://www.workinfo.com/free/diversity.htm


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