Workplace Diversity: Is It a Justification for Proportional Representation in the Workplace?

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

In 1987, the Hudson Institute released its demographic study of the United States, Workforce 2000. It immediately captured the attention of many employers, both small and large, because of predictions of a higher than expected influx of women and ethnic minorities into the American workforce. According to the Hudson Institute's projections, only 15 percent of new workers entering the labor force in the 1990s would be white males; the remainder would consist of females and members of ethnic minorities. The consequences of such rapid demographic shifts gave rise to the study of the implications of a more diverse workforce and society. Within one year of the publication of Workforce 2000, the first articles advising businesses and organizations how to capitalize on this diversity were being published (Copeland, 1988; Marmer-Solomon, 1989). Simultaneously, diversity consultants began attaining legitimacy in the business community, and many of their solutions were gaining general acceptance.

A PROBLEM WITH DEFINITIONS

Since 1987, the term diversity has become one of those ethereal words which is increasingly difficult to define. Diversity means many things to many people. Organizations have been following varying strategies from recognizing to embracing diversity in the workplace. As an example, Robinson, Franklin, and Terpstra (1994) identified a continuum of four strategies that organizations use to cope with diversity: (1) awareness, (2) accommodation, (3) affirmative action, and (4) alternative change and commitment that is required for each strategy. Awareness, the simplest category of policy modification, assumes that firms adopting this strategy follow trends in their relevant labor markets and note the increased participation of women and ethnic minorities. The second option on the continuum, accommodation, assumes that organizations following this strategy choose to adapt some of their policies to the anticipated labor force development, primarily seeking to attract and retain certain classes of employees with a minimum disruption of production processes, workplace rules and procedures, and management styles. The affirmative action strategy argues that in the absence of discriminatory intent, an employer's internal workplace should mirror its external labor market. As will be discussed in more detail later, this strategy may run afoul of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) statutes. Finally, the alternative standards strategy advocates understanding that women and ethnic minorities often exhibit different workplace behaviors, and as a result, it is suggested, and even encouraged, that women and ethnic minorities be treated differently by their employers. Like the affirmative action strategy, the alternative standards strategy poses some very serious conflicts with existing EEO laws.

Interestingly, diversity is far more inclusive than the protected classes that many human resource managers associate with current EEO laws and affirmative action regulations. In addition to including ethnicity, sex, race, age, and disability (the statutorily protected classes), diversity may also apply to sexual preference (Kaplan & Lucas, 1996). However, diversity invariably encourages employers to become aware of cultural differences among their workers and modify employment practices accordingly.

Not surprisingly, the academic community's interest in diversity quickly coalesced into an identifiable diversity movement. And though the goals of this movement run the gamut from calling for social action to demanding political power, and all points in between, when it comes to organizational policy, two basic tenets have emerged: (1) heterogeneous, or diverse, work groups are preferable to homogeneous ones; and (2) organizations must learn to accommodate the different needs of these diverse groups in the workplace (Herriot & Pemberton, 1995; Baytos, 1995). The former tenet holds that diversity itself is an organizational strength which should be valued and actively pursued (Thomas, 1991; Loden & Rosener, 1991; Cross, 1994; Fernandez & Barr, 1993; Fernandez, 1991). …