Defining Diversity

From the SHRM website:

At the outset of any diversity initiative, an organization needs to decide for itself how it will define diversity. There is no single right answer to the question.

According to Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe, prinicipals of Gardenswartz & Rowe, a California-based diversity consulting and training team, the trend seems to favor a broad definition, one that goes beyond the visible differences such as race, ethnicity, age, and gender. For many people a narrow definition focusing only on a few visible characteristics, is not only too exclusive, but is also too closely linked to affirmative action. Furthermore, a narrow definition seems to engender resistance from white males, and does not accomplish long-term cultural change that focuses on utilizing the best talents of everyone, a primary objective for most diversity initiatives.

A broad definition of diversity ranges from personality and work style to all of the visible dimensions of diversity, to secondary influences such as religion, socioeconomics and education, to work diversities such as management and union, functional level and classification or proximity/distance to headquarters. While initially these diversities seem much less important than, for example, race or sexual orientation, over time these diversity issues matter a great deal. Among the ones that frequently damage an organization or workgroup are factors around education, socioeconomics and work experience. Such factors are relevant to the assumptions that people make about one another and the collaboration, openness, and trust (or lack thereof) that people feel in working together. A broader definition of diversity also helps all employees find a place(s) to connect with other employees. It offers chances to connect and fortify relationships that enable employees to deal with more potentially volatile issues that may later arise.

Keep in mind, however, that to those who have been excluded from career opportunities, whether through entrenched systems or individual bias, either unconscious or intentional, a broad focus can seem irrelevant and meaningless. Does it really matter whether or not someone is single or married, from the northeast or southwest, or grew up in a rural or urban environment? One could justifiably believe that what an organization needs to look at, for example, is the fact that all Hispanic-Americans keep getting the housekeeping jobs, or women are in support jobs or staff jobs rather than having the responsibility in operations, and African-Americans are absent from any managerial responsibilities.

What is crucial for any definition of diversity is that an organization’s employees and customers see themselves in the definition. If they can relate to it, they will be more likely to invest in the initiative, particularly since some resistance is likely to eventually surface.

The following are some examples of how several organizations have chosen to define diversity:

Society for Human Resource Management: “To celebrate diversity is to appreciate and value individual differences. SHRM strives to be the leader in promoting workplace diversity. Although the term is often used to refer to differences based on ethnicity, gender, age, religion, disability, national origin and sexual orientation, diversity encompasses an infinite range of individuals’ unique characteristics and experiences, including communication styles, physical characteristics such as height and weight, and speed of learning and comprehension.”

Microsoft Corporation: “At Microsoft, we believe that diversity enriches our performance and products, the communities in which we live and work, and the lives of our employees. As our workforce evolves to reflect the growing diversity of our communities and global marketplace, our efforts to understand, value and incorporate differences become increasingly important. At Microsoft, we have established a number of initiatives to promote diversity within our own organization, and to demonstrate this commitment in communities nation wide.”

Texas Instruments: Texas Instruments defines diversity as their “effectiveness at using the talents of people of different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives is key to our competitive edge. Diversity is a core TI value; valuing diversity in our work force is at the core of the TI Values Statement…Every TIer must work to create an environment that promotes diversity…Each TI business will develop diversity strategies and measurements….”An expanded version of Texas Instruments’ definition of diversity can be viewed at

BankBoston: “Diversity at BankBoston is defined broadly to include group differences (based on age, race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, parental status or job group, for instance) and individual differences, including communications style, career experience, and other variables. Our goal is to create an environment that is inclusive, drawing upon the strength of the diversity of our workforce to exceed the expectations of BankBoston’s customers.”

Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare: “Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare is committed to increasing the diversity of staff at all levels while paying special attention to improving the representation of women and minorities in key positions; to creating an inclusive, respectful and equitable environment; to serving our diverse members with culturally sensitive services; and to changing the organizational culture through leadership, policies and practices.”

Computer Sciences Corporation: “We value the diversity of our employees and the unique perspectives they bring to CSC. Diversity at CSC includes functional roles within the company, the markets and industries we serve, our length of service, geographic location, educational background, age, race, gender, ethnicity and whether we joined CSC independently or through an acquisition. By valuing differences, we demonstrate our commitment to treating everyone with fairness and respect.”

Also, organizational policies, which help to formally frame the basic foundation of a diversity initiative, generally include not only a statement of how the organization defines diversity, but also a statement on non-discrimination in the workplace, vision and/or mission statements, and information on initiativeming that demonstrates the organization’s commitment to valuing the contributions of all employees.

In trying to understand just exactly what “diversity management” is, consider the following set of assumptions and belief systems about diversity that have more to do with human behavior than they do race, gender or age. These underlying principles are inherent to diversity work:

  1. Diversity is about each person coming to terms with his or her attitudes, beliefs, and expectations about others and gaining comfort with differentness.
  2. Diversity is big enough to include everyone…young and old, homeless and affluent, immigrant and native, white and black….and goes beyond race and gender.
  3. No one is or should be the target for blame for current or past inequities. All human beings have been socialized to behave in certain ways, and all of us are at times both perpetrators and victims of discrimination and stereotypes.
  4. Human beings are ethnocentric – they see the world through their own narrow view and judge the world by what is familiar to them.
  5. The human species resists change, continually striving for a state of homeostasis. This makes the constant adaptation required for diversity difficult for people already overwhelmed by staggering transitions in today’s organizations
  6. Human beings find comfort and trust in likeness. There is a tendency to seek the company of those most similar to ourselves.
  7. It is difficult for people to share power; history shows that it is rarely done voluntarily and without a reason that will somehow benefit those dominating the pool of wealth