Diversity Initiatives in the Workplace

Work in Progress at the University of Illinois

by Rose Mary Wentling

Demographic change, the global marketplace, greater tolerance for differences, and govern-ment-sponsored programs are increasing the importance of diversity in the workplace. In the near future, more women, minorities, and people with different ethnic backgrounds and lifestyles will enter the workforce. Companies will face the same issues and problems public schools have been facing in understanding and utilizing the full range of human potential in a diverse population. Organizations that do not manage diversity effectively will not be able to utilize the full potential of their workers, nor to survive and grow under increasingly complex and competitive business conditions.

At the NCRVE site at the University of Illinois, we have been studying the status and trends of diversity initiatives in the workplace. This article discusses the major findings from our research, including the barriers to working with diversity, reasons for implementing diversity strategies, and the most effective initiatives. We conclude with an overview of trends in diversity, of special interest to human resource professionals.

Our major research method was in-depth, open-ended interviews with a panel of twelve diversity experts chosen for their experience working with companies on diversity initiatives, and for their publications and research in the field.

Defining Diversity

The experts we consulted defined diversity broadly. By including everybody as part of the diversity that should be valued, we recognize that all employees bring their differences, including group-identity differences, to the workplace. A broad definition moves diversity issues beyond an "us versus them" struggle to a focus on using diversity to accomplish both individual and organizational goals.

However, organizations which seek to correct a company bias against a particular group may define diversity more narrowly, according to their specific needs. Others argue that attempts to cover all differences may weaken current efforts to reduce racism and sexism in our society. No single definition can capture the broad range of differences diversity includes, the evolutionary nature of the process it represents, and the far-reaching impact it has on individuals and organizations.

Barriers Faced by Minorities

A first step in working with diversity issues is determining what concerns and barriers are the most critical to the organization's employees. Although the specific barriers to advancement vary from one company to another, their effect is the same in closing down the full potential of its workforce.

We found that many barriers continue to restrict the opportunities of diverse groups. These barriers may be from the environment, such as discrimination or stereotyping, and from individuals, such as poor career planning or inadequate skill preparation. Both external and internal barriers can be equally detrimental to the advancement of diverse groups. External barriers may be more obvious than internal barriers, but minorities need to carefully assess and identify the barriers they set for themselves and work on resolving them.

Nonetheless, many internal barriers emerge as a result of external barriers. Since both types of barriers affect each other, it may be difficult to deal with them separately.

Why Organizations Incorporate Diversity

We found that the major reason organizations strive to incorporate diversity is to improve productivity and to remain competitive. As others have noted, companies do not implement diversity programs because it is the social, legal, or "in" thing to do. While the need for incorporating diversity may appear to grow out of notions of social and economic fairness and morality, the real need is to maintain and increase profits in national and global competition.

The impetus for diversity initiatives must come from awareness of the business implications: addressing the needs of workers, satisfying the demands of competitiveness, and fulfilling the requirements of the company's role in the community. Organizations are willing to accept change related to diversity only if the potential benefits are clear and worthwhile.

Perhaps the strongest rationale for incorporating diversity is to increase productivity among all workers, especially among groups that have historically been underrepresented and underutilized (such as women, people of color, people with physical disabilities, older workers, and gay or lesbian employees).

Best Strategies for Working with Diversity

Organizations must provide employees with skills for operating in a multicultural environment, so that employees can understand their own as well as other cultures, values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and strengths and weaknesses.

The experts we consulted said that the six best strategies for working with diversity are:

Training and education, an often used approach, can fill a company's needs in areas such as awareness-building; skill building, helping employees understand the need for valuing diversity, educating employees on specific cultural differences, providing the skills necessary for working in diverse work teams, and providing skills and development activities necessary for diverse groups to do their job and have the opportunity for advancement.

Training and education programs vary in style and content from organization to organization, and are heavily influenced by the organization's definition of diversity. All forms of training should include awareness-building, skill development, application, and support. Support is especially important, as numerous authors have acknowledged that potential benefits of training will not be likely to occur unless trainees return to a supportive environment for applying what they have learned.

No single approach to working with diversity can be recommended for all organizational situations. However, obtaining top management support, integrating diversity into all company functions, using a combination of strategies; and creating a corporate culture that supports diversity can be used with any approach to improve outcomes.

Components of Effective Diversity Training Programs

These components can be used by human resource development (HRD) professionals in developing diversity training programs in their organizations, or as guidelines for comparison. Our study confirms previous research that program success depends on many organizational aspects, especially commitment and support from top management. This raises the important question of what HRD professionals might do to insure and maintain management support in firms where training is already being conducted, as well as how they might "sell" diversity training to management when they feel it is needed. Human resource development professionals need to make top management aware that productivity and profits depend on full utilization of the workforce.

An effective diversity training program begins with identifying the specific organizational needs and culture. Every organization has a culture of its own, shaped by the people who founded it and staff it. And due to workforce makeup, diversity needs vary greatly; for example, a company in northern Illinois will have very different needs than a company in Miami, Tucson, or Los Angeles.

Our study indicates that effective diversity training is:

Ongoing evaluation is critical to the success of any diversity initiative. A clearly focused evaluation plan can bring the organization to a place where it can see its successes and then create a "re-vision" for the future, with new goals and implementation initiatives. Without concrete, long-term information about a program's strengths, weaknesses, and impacts, it is impossible to improve content and delivery. Evaluation is also a way to fight against critics, and its results may provide support for continuing with diversity programs.


The experts we consulted agree that workforce diversity will become an increasingly important trend for the following reasons: The task of managing diversity in the future may not be an easy one, especially with the potential for backlash. History has shown that the struggle for greater inclusiveness of all people has not been easy. Civil right laws, political events, and wars all attest to this difficulty. Recent attacks on affirmative action provide new evidence that diversity remains a controversial topic. HRD professionals need to be prepared to deal with the inevitable possibility that not everyone will accept diversity as a worthwhile goal.

Organizations of the future must place more emphasis on valuing and managing diversity, or watch their productivity and competitiveness slip. A long-term perspective on diversity initiatives, together with integration with other organizational change efforts, will be needed. Diversity efforts should be linked to organizational needs and objectives through need assessments and evaluation. These efforts can substantially increase the company's productivity and profits over the long run.

More information is available from the following individuals at NCRVE, University of Illinois, 345 College of Education, Champaign, IL 61820: Rose Mary Wentling, (217) 333-0807, FAX (217) 244-5632, rmcwent@uiuc.edu or Mildred Griggs, (217) 333-0960, FAX (217) 333-5847, m-griggs@uiuc.edu

Rose Mary Wentling is an associate professor of Human Resource Development in the Department of Human Resource Education at the University of Illinois. She teaches graduate courses in diversity, strategic planning, and organization development. Her two major areas of research interest include diversity in education and the workplace and the career development and aspiration of women in management.

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