Workplace diversity continues to be both an interest and a concern to organizations worldwide. Efforts to provide greater access to corporate careers for groups that have been historically discriminated against is not new. However, what is more modern is the examination of how inherent and subtle biases, as well as privileges, may facilitate the movement of some groups up the corporate ladder—while constructing a glass ceiling for others. Managing diversity efforts that focus on more closely examining the organizational norms, values, and practices that enhance or impede diversity can therefore be met by appreciation as well as resentment and backlash by organizational members and the public at large.
This article identifies reasons for continued interest in diversity matters and distinguishes workplace diversity initiatives from other organizational efforts to promote workplace equity, such as equal employment opportunity and affirmative action. The discussion then contrasts two different scholarly and practical approaches to workplace diversity. Next, it focuses on career development and identifies some of the career challenges confronted by minority workers, even within the increasingly diverse workplace. Effective strategies for achieving equal opportunity in career development for organizations are summarized, and the entry concludes with a discussion of the benefits of workplace diversity.
Workplace Diversity: More than Affirmative Action
Workplace diversity is a broad and complex phrase that means many things to many people, perhaps because as a larger society, we are continually challenged by what it means to have a diverse society. For example, changes in the demographic makeup of the American population have accompanied an evolution in how society thinks and even talks about diversity. The diversity metaphor has progressed from talking about the United States as a melting pot to discussing society as being a mosaic. The “melting-pot” metaphor reflected a time in which a large number of immigrants who came to the United States traveled in order to escape persecution and/or to seize the tremendous opportunities offered by the “American dream.” At times, immigrants were willing to shed their ethnic identities in exchange for the opportunity to call themselves Americans. Yet over time, for some groups, such as African Americans, the melting pot came to symbolize the lack of choice in becoming American for many of their ancestors and the sense that to be anything other than White, blond-haired, and blue-eyed was something to be avoided. The melting pot did not represent an equal blending of ethnic identities of both voluntary and forced immigrants; instead, for many citizens, it represented an avoidance and exclusion of their differences and identities.
Today, an alternative diversity metaphor portrays the American society as a mosaic, a picture made up of many different and unique parts that are able to retain their individual identities yet meaningfully contribute to the whole. The setting aside of the melting-pot metaphor in no way represents a dismissal of one’s Americanness, but rather signals the need to have both an American and an ethnic identity.
Given that the United States is largely a country of immigrants, workplace diversity in many ways is nothing new. The workplace has always been diverse, given that it has consisted of individuals with different nationalities as well as values, personalities, perspectives, and ideas. However, Workforce 2000 set into motion a growing concern about the future labor force and the roles of women, people of color, and older workers in the future of corporate America.
In 1987, the Hudson Institute released Workforce 2000, a major report that described the shifts the labor force was facing—namely, that as the population aged, so would the workforce. In addition, the report concluded that women would make up a greater percentage of new entrants to the workplace, as would racial minorities. Finally, this report also indicated that immigrants would make up the largest share of new workers since World War 1.
Workforce 2000 served as a forecast for corporate America of the changes the labor force was undergoing. However, it also signaled to organizations that the old methods of recruiting, selecting, and developing workers might not be as beneficial with this new, more heterogeneous pool of potential workers as they had in the past. For example, the increasing gender diversity of the labor force has expanded ideas about employee benefits. Given many women’s responsibility for child and elder care, many employee benefits now go beyond health and life insurance to also include family and medical leave, as well as flexible working schedules and arrangements. Although these initiatives have been frequently considered by organizations in order to better attract and retain female workers, they benefit all employees as traditional gender roles for men and women (in- and outside the workplace) lessen.
Another example of how Workforce 2000 challenged conventional notions of human resource practices relates to the increase in linguistic diversity, given the growing numbers of immigrant labor. The influx of immigrant labor has meant that organizations must consider the ways in which they communicate with current and future employees regarding recruitment, selection, and promotion as well as employee rights and responsibilities and, most important, safety. The surge of Spanish-speaking workers has made many organizations consider the relevance and legality of English-only norms and practices that could disadvantage this important and large segment of the workforce. The increase in immigrant labor has also meant that monolingual supervisors and managers who direct linguistic-minority employees must develop a working fluency of a new language as well as develop an understanding of the nuances of a different culture.
At the same time the United States and the world were coming to grips with the changing workforce, the nature of work was likewise changing. For the United States, an economy largely built on manufacturing was becoming increasingly focused on the service sector and the new information market. The workplace itself was becoming more and more streamlined as organizational charts flattened. Increasingly, the work of companies became organized around teams, thus increasing the relevance of the increasingly diverse labor force to the functioning of the workplace. Therefore, a concern of many organizations and researchers was the impact of cross-gendered and cross-racial teams on team cohesiveness and performance, as well as the potential for increased levels of conflict. However, all forms of diversity, not just demographic diversity, can potentially lead to conflict within the workplace. Some conflict may, in fact, lead to more effective team processes and outcomes.
The potential for conflict related to diversity has not been a function solely of group dynamics but also of differences in individuals’ understanding of the implications of workplace diversity on their own careers, and these differences in perspectives have promoted both confusion and backlash. For example, most employees can agree on how to resolve first-order conflict, the type of conflict that results in overt and visible barriers and discrimination in the workplace, such as employment practices that directly discriminate against hiring members of certain ethnic groups. First-order conflict is easily recognized, yet differences over how it should be resolved may result in second-order conflict.
Second-order conflict represents differences in perspectives within the organization that center on definitions of fairness and achieving equity. These differences are rarely voiced and create heavy burdens for organizations that want to move forward in their diversity efforts. These hidden differences often manifest themselves in resistance and backlash. In large part, this backlash has been brought about by misunderstandings of what managing diversity efforts entail, in particular the relationship of diversity efforts to equal employment opportunity and affirmative action.
As a program or initiative, workplace diversity is often confused with equal employment opportunity and affirmative action. Given the continued backlash against affirmative action, many have considered workplace diversity programs and initiatives as “politically correct” disguises for affirmative action. These initiatives can complement one another, yet are distinct. In fact, both workplace diversity programs and affirmative action can be considered as part of a larger strategy for accomplishing equal employment opportunity.
Equal employment opportunity comes out of U.S. federal law, and it promotes a goal for organizations so that everyone has an equal chance at employment regardless of race, sex, religion, or nationality. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to monitor and enforce the law that prohibits employment discrimination for the protected groups named.
Whereas equal employment opportunity policy reflects a goal for an organization, affirmative action involves proactive steps on the part of an organization to reflect the diversity of the local labor market. Affirmative action, therefore, is a tool to accomplish equal employment opportunity. Affirmative action came out of Executive Order (11246), signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 (and extended in later orders), which required that federal contractors develop plans that would ensure that employment discrimination did not occur based on an individual’s race or sex. Many people mistakenly confuse affirmative action with the use of quotas. Also dominant among the misperceptions of affirmative action is that it encourages organizations to hire unqualified women and ethnic minorities. In most circumstances, quotas are illegal. It makes very poor business sense to hire anyone who is unqualified. The only time the government forces organizations to hire anyone of a particular group is when that company (that contracts with the federal government) has egregiously discriminated against protected groups in the past. In fact, affirmative action is not just one program or initiative, but can involve a multitude of actions related to achieving diversity, in areas such as recruitment, training, and human resource development.
Perhaps the misconceptions of affirmative action reflect not only different levels of knowledge about equal employment opportunity, affirmative action, and workplace diversity but also differences in levels of awareness of the relationship of power and privilege to race, gender, and other forms of identity in-and outside the workplace. The assumptions implicit within the inaccuracies regarding affirmative action as promoting unfairness and incompetence suggest a belief that discrimination is a thing of the past and that individuals regardless of race and gender have equal access to power and privilege throughout all sectors of society. Consistently, data from the national census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the EEOC suggest that minority group members lack the same level of access as majority group members to quality education and jobs and that they continue to confront discrimination (in many different forms) in and out of the workplace. Likewise, identifying any scholarly literature or research that explains the value of hiring any incompetent worker would be extremely difficult. Yet arguments exist to dismantle affirmative action based on these misperceptions. Perhaps, as one noted scholar indicated, affirmative action could be dismantled when average women and people of color have the same opportunities for education and employment as average White men.
Like affirmative action, managing diversity programs attempt to create organizational contexts that promote equal employment opportunity. Much of the focus of affirmative action programs has been on creating equity in regard to access to jobs and organizational careers. Although affirmative action is frequently successful in opening doors for qualified women and racial minorities, the organization must still find ways to ensure that support for these groups’ performance and career development is available. At a minimum, organizations must strive to eliminate treatment discrimination once new minority workers have been hired. This is where managing-diversity programs come in. Like affirmative action programs, there is not a single defining characteristic of a managing-diversity program. Most are multifaceted and include attempts to not only attract diverse employees but also retain them.
Individual Difference and Social Justice: Approaches to Understanding Diversity
As organizations began to grapple with issues of diversity, organizational researchers have sought to understand the implications of the increasingly diverse workplace on organizations, work, and individual performance. Research has also sought to better understand the realities of diverse workers. There are two approaches to considering the relationship of workplace diversity to career development. The individual-difference approach takes a broad perspective about diversity and considers every form of difference as equally relevant and important to career development in diverse organizations. Therefore, differences in personality and cognitive ability are equated to forms of difference that stem from race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation. The individual-difference perspective strives to be inclusive by expanding the criteria by which one falls under the diversity umbrella. The individual-difference approach is important in that it can attract majority group members, like White men, to diversity-related conversations and action planning. Although this approach may decrease resentment and backlash from the majority group, it may also antagonize minority group members, who may feel that their opportunities to be heard and seek justice are being co-opted in order to make majority group members feel comfortable.
In contrast, the social justice approach to examining diversity suggests that some differences are more socially significant and relevant to interpersonal dynamics in the workplace. The social justice approach considers the extent to which social and historical legacies have prohibited or denied some groups full participation in organizations and thus stifled opportunities for learning, training, and career development. The assumption guiding this approach is that the realities that minority groups face outside of organizations, such as discrimination, exclusion, stereotyping, and isolation, are transported into organizations through citizens who are also employees. From this perspective, differences based on characteristics such as race and gender are more important than diversity based on characteristics such as personality, because minority status due to demographic characteristics can be stigmatizing. These identities serve as social markers that create opportunities for access and treatment discrimination in organizations. That is why this entry places special emphasis on understanding the challenges for the career development of women and people of color. For members of these groups, a history of overt and modern forms of discrimination, exclusion, and isolation have limited their opportunities for personal career development and also their opportunities to meaningfully contribute to the healthy functioning of their organizations.
Therefore, a review of these challenges is necessary to fully understand how socially marked identities based on race, gender, and sexuality limit opportunities for career development. Organizations have differed in their perspectives regarding how they think and thus react to the challenge of developing a diverse workforce. A conversation regarding different organizational perspectives and actions regarding diversity will therefore follow, along with other suggestions for successfully developing employees in a diverse workplace.
Career Development Challenges for Minority Workers
Despite equal employment opportunity goals, affirmative action, and even managing-diversity programs, minority workers can encounter significant challenges to their career development. Despite the federal laws and organizational policies against discrimination and harassment, these barriers to minority career development continue. Wal-Mart, for example, is currently defending itself against a class action suit that alleges gender discrimination. Female employees and middle managers claim not only that they encountered discrimination in regard to access to opportunities for development and promotion but also that gender discrimination exists in regard to pay. Black employees who work at Georgia Power have faced racial harassment and intimidation in their workplace. Racist graffiti and hangmen’s nooses (reminiscent of the lynching of Blacks) have been found in areas occupied by Black workers within the company. These are obviously instances of overt forms of discrimination and harassment, yet minority workers also confront “microaggressions” and “everyday discrimination,” which creates hostile work environments and likely interferes with employees’ level of investment in their work and identification with their employers.
One way to think about the overt and subtle forms of discrimination that are confronted by minority group members in the workplace is to focus on the glass ceiling. The glass ceiling is a broad term that refers to the often subtle and invisible barriers confronted by minority workers as they attempt to develop their careers. Women, people of color, and gay and lesbian workers can confront both overt and covert forms of discrimination that derail their careers. Overt hostility and exclusion and subtle distancing prevent minority workers from forming healthy and developmental relationships at work and create very real barriers to their promotion and further professional development.
The glass ceiling limits opportunities for many minority workers to develop their careers and reach top-management positions in corporate America, an invisible barrier they confront as they attempt to move up the corporate ladder. There are varying explanations for why the glass ceiling exists, and they lead to varying perspectives on what minority employees can do to overcome it.
A survey of chief executive officers in corporate America indicated that they felt that there are not many women in the upper echelons of corporate America due to the small numbers of women in the leadership pipeline and women’s relative lack of experience. The same study also surveyed managerial women on track to upper-management positions. These female respondents provided different explanations for women’s lack of visibility within the leadership ranks of many corporations. Rather than talking about the lack of women in the leadership pipeline and women’s limited work experiences, these respondents largely pointed to the organizational culture as limiting women’s advancement. Accordingly, executive women frequently describe organizational cultures as being highly patriarchal and hostile to women. The respondents suggested that another likely contributor to the glass ceiling is the method by which senior leadership is selected. According to this particular sample, it is likely that male leaders select future leaders based on the extent to which high-potential employees are most similar to themselves. These women felt that men select other men and that issues of equity and fairness in regard to leadership development are not critical when deciding who will and will not climb the corporate ladder.
Women who have broken through the glass ceiling and hold positions of significant leadership in the corporate world report using a variety of strategies to help promote their own career development and visibility. Studies of executive women across racial groups reveal that these women consistently try to exceed others’ performance expectations. Exceeding expectations leaves little doubt or ambiguity regarding one’s competence and credibility. Many female executives also report that they attempt to develop interpersonal styles that place male managers at ease. In addition, female executives look for stretch opportunities in order to develop new and valuable skill sets but also so that they can be successful in important and visible ways to top decision makers. Finally, they also attempt to gain the support of an influential mentor.
Especially telling about the culture of an organization and its contribution to the glass ceiling are the reported strategies that successful women use to break through the glass ceiling. Strategies that focus on exceeding expectations and using an interpersonal style that makes men comfortable reflect the prevalence of a culture that privileges men and defines women as “the other” who must adapt to men’s preferences. A race-based privilege is likely also at work, given that Black corporate women make similar suggestions for strategies to break through the glass ceiling; these women recommend an interpersonal style that places White coworkers at ease. Again, this recommendation speaks to the prevalence of a “White racial privilege” in corporate America that defines non-Whites as “others” who must continually prove their worth and make people comfortable with their identity.
Workplace experiences of African Americans suggest that they confront a workplace dynamic similar to that experienced by women. A study of Black and White managers in various organizations found that compared with their White counterparts, Black managers had more negative career-related experiences in their organizations. Black managers felt less accepted by their organizations and saw themselves as having less job discretion than their White peers. In addition, Black managers received lower job performance and promotability ratings by their supervisors, and they expressed lower levels of career satisfaction. Black managers in the sample were also more likely to have reached career plateaus compared with their White counterparts.
A longitudinal study of Black and White managers’ careers revealed that managers identified early in the careers as being on the fast track or having high potential experienced very different career trajectories over time. White managers seemed to have a linear path to the corporate suite. Black managers, however, often experienced career plateaus prior to reaching high executive levels, and they also took longer to get there. Although Black managers experienced more promotions than their White counterparts, these promotions were frequently lateral moves and offered little opportunity for greater visibility and development. Black managers who did become high-level executives did so by moving past their career plateaus (and perhaps proving themselves to their coworkers) and by having an influential and diverse set of mentors.
A Context for Career Development in a Diverse Workplace
Career development for an increasingly diverse workforce builds on older and standard organizational practices, such as career mapping, but must also reflect the unique experiences of minority workers. This section explores how differences in organizational perspectives and paradigms are reflected in human resource practices that can impede or facilitate career development for a diverse workforce. Discrimination and fairness, access and legitimacy, and learning and effectiveness are three different diversity paradigms that have consequences for minority career development.
Some organizations embrace a discrimination and fairness paradigm or way of thinking in regard to diversity. For these organizations, managing diversity is mainly concerned with diversity numbers. Equal employment opportunity compliance and avoiding legal battles over employment discrimination are the primary diversity goals. Therefore, diversity efforts mainly center on the recruitment and subsequent selection of minority workers. Far less attention is paid to the issue of retention. These organizations lack efforts to support and develop minority workers, and so many of these workers will leave due to pressures to assimilate. Minority and majority employees in these organizations lack the opportunities to acknowledge and appreciate each other’s differences as an opportunity for learning.
Organizations following access and legitimacy paradigms view employee diversity as an opportunity to explore and serve new markets; the value of diverse workers is in the financial benefits organizations accrue by expanding their markets. From a human resource perspective, organizations with an employee base that reflects the diversity of the consumers they serve can provide better customer service. This is especially important within the marketing function, given that those who work in this area are responsible for understanding their potential market and making sure that new products have wide appeal. A classic pre-Workforce 2000 example of a time in which an organization did not attend to the diversity of its potential markets relates to the marketing of the Chevy Nova. In the 1970s, the Chevy Nova was a somewhat popular mid-sized car that had broad appeal in the United States. However, marketing and sales of the Chevy Nova floundered in the Latin American market. Apparently, no one at Chevy had considered the role of cultural differences in the international appeal of the automobile. In Spanish, the word nova could actually be understood as “no va,” which, translated literally, means “It does not go!”
Although minority workers may feel valued within the access and legitimacy organizational context, they may also feel exploited, especially when they are not afforded opportunities to learn and demonstrate new or non-identity-related skill sets. There is also a loss for non-minority workers in regard to their own development. Access and legitimacy organizations value the cultural knowledge diverse workers bring to the workplace; however, they fail to create opportunities for the wider dissemination of this knowledge for the organizational good. Non-minority workers therefore lose out on the developmental opportunity to enhance and broaden their knowledge of racial and cultural markets that may differ from their own. When minority workers leave these organizational contexts, the unique knowledge they bring to their jobs departs with them.
Organizations following learning and effectiveness paradigms view diversity as a strategic advantage and attempt to create a climate that values and recognizes diversity as an opportunity for learning, and therefore an opportunity for effectiveness. The integration of diversity is an organizational goal, and the appreciation for diversity and its value to organizational learning and effectiveness is a key part of these organizations’ cultures. This type of organization creates opportunities for employees to learn from one another. The lack of pressure to assimilate to a defined norm within the organization frees all employees so that they can contribute to the organization in new and unique ways and accomplish their work most effectively.
Career Development Opportunities
Diverse workplaces that are able to facilitate the career development of all of their employees share some common mind-sets and practices. This article concludes with a summary of common strategies used by diverse workplaces that promote career development.
- Leadership: Organizations that reap the rewards of diversity have leaders who are committed to diversity and model that commitment. Leaders are accepting of diversity and value the variety of opinions and insights that a diverse workforce and top leadership team may offer. Leaders also recognize that challenges will exist due to the variety of perspectives that a diverse workforce can offer, yet they are committed enough to persevere during the shift in the corporate culture from one that may deny diversity to a culture that celebrates it.
- Accountability: Leadership, managers, and all employees must be accountable for upholding the organization’s values regarding diversity. This may mean enforcing anti-discrimination and harassment policies as well as ensuring that new employees are recruited, selected, developed, and promoted in ways that do not create systems of disadvantage for minority workers. Likewise, organizations must monitor the climate for diversity in their organizations periodically to understand the opportunities and barriers that minority workers face.
- Diversity training: Diversity training provides all employees with the opportunity to begin the journey toward developing multicultural competence, that is, the awareness, knowledge, and interpersonal skills required to work successfully with others who are different from oneself. For diversity training to be successful, it must have the full support and commitment of leadership, as well as be sensitive to the group dynamics that already exist within the organization. The perspective regarding training is that it is a long-term endeavor that evolves as employees develop in their own sense of identity and multicultural development. Effective training provides employees with a clear message regarding the organization’s perspective and goals, as well as its commitment, related to diversity.
- Mentoring and networks: Much of the mentoring research suggests that women and people of color confront barriers to accessing workplace networks and in gaining adequate mentoring. Mentoring by more senior personnel provides psychosocial and instrumental support to any employee. Therefore, the denial of mentoring opportunities because of a potential protege’s minority status due to race, gender, or sexuality places that employee at a severe disadvantage for career development. Organizations must create opportunities for mentoring (informal or formal) and reward effective mentoring. Similar strategies must be put in place in regard to networks. One option is to create affinity groups (such as a gay and lesbian caucus) or interest groups that are focused on supporting the organization’s diversity goals as a way to enhance diverse networking opportunities for minority and majority group workers.
Increasing diversity in the workplace provides a valuable asset for organizational learning and effectiveness. Some research indicates that effectively managing diversity and committing to the development of a diverse labor force can save the money organizations lose when they have to remedy the problems of employee absenteeism and turnover. Committing to the recruitment and retention of diverse workers can also save organizations from the substantial financial costs of defending themselves against allegations of discrimination. Furthermore, organizations with a growth-oriented business strategy have demonstrated that workplace diversity can lead to higher levels of employee productivity, organizational performance, and financial returns.
- Affirmative action
- Gender and careers
- Glass ceiling
- Racial discrimination
- Sex discrimination
- Sexual orientation and careers
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