Perhaps it is time to take a sober second look at the promise of diversity. Perhaps it’s time for us to revisit why we...

By Trevor Wilson
Author and Global Human Equity Strategist, TWI Inc.

75% of Fortune 1000 companies have a diversity initiative and the business case for diversity has been embraced enthusiastically. Nonetheless empirical support for the business case is scant. Indeed although some evidence exists to support the general idea that positive outcomes can result from having a diverse population, research indicates that the impact of diversity is not always positive.
–The Diverse Organization Finding Gold at the End of the Rainbow

This year, diversity will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary. It may be hard to believe that it was 25 years ago that the Hudson institute predicted the huge demographic shift in the North American workforce prompted by the expected retirement of baby boomers coupled with an unprecedentedly slow natural labor force growth.

These demographic projections were followed by several hopeful predictions of the changing nature of the North American workforce. The first prediction was that the workforce would become more diverse. A more diverse workforce, it was postulated, would be more creative, more productive, and if managed properly more cohesive. However, it would appear that the most recent evidence suggests that not all of these predictions have materialized.

In a recent paper, The Diverse Organization Finding Gold at the End of the Rainbow, three academic authors challenge the truisms surrounding diversity. As the opening quote infers, the article poses several unflinching questions. Does diversity, in fact, enhance creativity? Does diversity enhance problem solving or improve organizational flexibility? Does diversity reduce costs? Does it influence stock prices and in general improve financial performance? In other words, the authors’ research may not be good news for the diversity industry.

Perhaps the biggest promise of diversity yet to be fulfilled surrounds the idea of representation in leadership. The 25-year promise was that by embracing diversity an organization would diversify its applicant and employee base which would inevitably lead to more diversity in leadership. Once again, the promise deserves a second look.

This brings us to another unmet promise, i.e. increased gender representation in leadership would pave the way for other underrepresented diversity groups. So if there has not been success on this representation promise with women it is no surprise that it hasn’t happened for other groups either.

Perhaps it is time to take a sober second look at the promise of diversity. Perhaps it’s time for us to revisit why we are doing this. One of the best speeches I have heard recently is the TED.com speech by Simon Sinek who has written the book Start with Why. Sinek makes a compelling argument that if you can clearly articulate why you are doing something, the what and the how are easy. However without a compelling why, it is virtually impossible to inspire change.

In 1995 I wrote a book called Diversity at Work: The Business Case for Equity. The book was meant to identify a bottom-line reason for diversity beyond legislation and corporate social responsibility. The book argued that if you show leadership the impact of diversity on business outcomes such as productivity, profitability, and attraction and retention of best talent then diversity would become an essential leadership imperative. This paper has caused me to re-think my position. In light of the evidence, I think it is definitely time for us to create a new “why” for diversity.

In 1996 Trevor started TWI Inc. to specialize in the area of equity and diversity as a business issue. In the same year, Trevor published a highly acclaimed book titled Diversity at Work: The Business Case for Equity. The firm’s clients include some of the most progressive global employers. TWI’s Human Equity™ approach was instrumental in catapulting Coca-Cola’s South African division to the top performing division worldwide.

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