An Approach to Developing Communication Strategies for Enhancing Organizational Diversity

By Witherspoon, Patricia D.; Wohlert, Kathy L. | The Journal of Business Communication, October 1996 | Go to article overview

An Approach to Developing Communication Strategies for Enhancing Organizational Diversity


Witherspoon, Patricia D., Wohlert, Kathy L., The Journal of Business Communication


Diversity in the workplace is a phenomenon of great strategic and operational consequences for both public and private organizations. The study presented in this paper is part of an ongoing two-year research project to foster and maintain diversity within a 14,000-employee statewide public agency called TRANWAY and among the external constituents doing business with the agency.

Recognizing that the strategic use of language and actions constitutes the communication foundation for organizational change, the authors developed an action plan -- a set of communication strategies -- designed to achieve TRANWAY'S objective of enhanced diversification. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the rationale for, and discuss the development of, these strategies. Accordingly the paper (a) recounts the events and the decisions affecting the framing of the research, (b) describes the organization structurally and historically, (c) presents the research methods for and findings of a one-year organizational assessment, and (d) discusses the communication strategies generated from the data.

Diversity in the workplace is not a new phenomenon; individual differences always have existed, even among groups identified as homogeneous. However, the heightened interest in diversity as a topic of organizational inquiry is relatively recent. Given the rapidly changing demographics of the U.S. workforce (Bolick & Nestleroth, 1988; Johnston & Packer, 1987) and the expanding globalization of US. businesses, this issue is, in fact, a phenomenon of great strategic and operational consequence for both public and private organizations (DeLuca & McDowell, 1992; Jackson & Alvarez, 1992).

Dealing with issues of diversity in the workplace -- whether they be theoretical or pragmatic--presents a challenge to the management scholar for at least two reasons. First, the concept of diversity is still evolving (Kim, 1991; Palmer, 1989; Morrison, 1992). "Workplace diversity" has been seen as a relatively unidimensional construct that dictates the creation of organizational strategies for "managing" or "valuing" it (Jackson & Alvarez, 1992). But examining this diversity requires a multidimensional lens -- one which sees it as much an issue of organizational change as it does an issue of individual differences; as much an issue of human resource policy as it is an ethical issue of fairness, equality, and/or justice.

Second, the meaning of diversity in an organization depends largely on the organizational actors in power and their perspective on diversity, be it humanistic, legal, economic, or Marxist. This happens because, as Ranson, Hinings, and Greenwood (1980) observed,

an organization is . . . composed of a number of groups divided by

alternative conceptions, value preferences, and sectional interests....

[The] analytical focus then becomes the relations of power which enable some

organizational members to constitute and recreate organizational structures

according to their provinces of meaning. (p. 7)

Whether the term "diversity" represents a proactive program for workforce enhancement or a clever mask for affirmative action agendas (Morrison, 1992), the phenomenon is not a passing fad. It is, rather, a current trend and a future reality that may determine, in part, the performance, productivity, and success of today's, and tomorrow's, organizations.

The reality of this phenomenon is currently being experienced by the organization on which this paper is based -- a 14,000-employee, statewide public agency called TRANWAY. The study presented here was part of a two-year research project whose purpose was to foster and maintain diversity within TRANWAY's workforce and among the external constituents doing business with TRANWAY. The project was a funded response to a request for proposals from the agency, a request prompted by several external forces that reflected increasing concern about the organization's commitment to valuing and fostering diversity within its workforce.

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