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World Class Diversity Management

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World Class Diversity Management

A Strategic Approach


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Managing diversity is more complex than adding and encouraging minority and female employees.

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Managing diversity is more complex than increasing the number of your minority and female employees and encouraging them to advance. Diversity consultant R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. advises that diversity means appreciating how people differ and engaging with those differences in ways that contribute to your corporate culture and bottom line. Whether you use his program or not, Thomas raises important issues and insights for managers and HR professionals. He asks a key question: Why confine your definition of diversity to race and gender when, instead, you can tap into every employee’s individual potential?


  • “World-Class Diversity Management” uses proven strategies to deal with diversity.
  • “Core diversity management strategies” can be divided into four quadrants. The first is “managing workforce representation“ by adding and retaining minority staff.
  • The second quadrant is managing “workforce relationships” to build harmony.
  • The third quadrant is managing “diverse talent” to retain a representative workforce.
  • The fourth quadrant is managing your “strategic diversity mixtures” to help you make the most of every employee’s talents.
  • Adopt the “Strategic Diversity Management Process” (SDMP) to align your strategies and implement the four quadrants.
  • SDMP requires “talking the talk,” “thinking the talk” and “walking the talk.”
  • To manage diversity effectively, you must be able to handle complexity.
  • Having your heart in the right place isn't a management strategy.


“World-Class Diversity Management” uses proven strategies to deal with diversity.

If you think diversity comes down to counting heads in your workplace, think again. Companies that focus solely on how many employees of color they have or their percentage of female versus male executives see only a fraction of the diversity picture. Managing diversity involves much more than your workers’ gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or age; it encompasses being able to recognize, deploy, deal with and lead “any type of diversity mixture anywhere.” To add capacity to your firm’s strengths, consider the strengths of “World-Class Diversity Management.”

“World-Class Diversity Management [takes] advantage of a growing implicit and explicit awareness of diversity beyond race, gender and ethnicity in the workforce.”

Most firms’ diversity management doesn’t come near the world-class level. Many executives either don’t understand diversity or they view handling it as an isolated task that they can complete and then forget about. World-class diversity management, a continual, challenging process.

“Core diversity management strategies” can be divided into “four quadrants.” The first is “managing workforce representation“ by adding and retaining minority staff.

This strategy arose during and after the American civil rights movement, when firms made a concerted effort to hire African-Americans and “mainstream” them into their corporate cultures. New anti-discrimination laws impelled many companies to act. Others responded to the fundamental urge to “make amends for past wrongs.” Companies commonly implemented affirmative action, favoring minorities in hiring. While controversial, such initiatives in this quadrant successfully raised public consciousness in the United States, teaching people that their organizations, businesses and governmental bodies should reflect the variety of the larger society.

“Historically, the greatest attention has been placed on special efforts to make amends by creating a representative workforce.”

The problem with managing workforce representation is that recruiting new minority and female workers doesn’t guarantee you can retain them. These staffers frequently encounter “glass ceilings” – obstacles to advancement – and experience “premature plateauing” – an organizational blockage that hampers them from achieving their full potential. Such obstacles drive minority, female and other diverse workers to leave your company. Achieving basic workforce diversity – hiring women and people of color, for example – is only one step; your firm must stretch beyond that.

The second quadrant is managing “workforce relationships” to build harmony.

Once companies hire a more diverse employee population, they must encourage civility at work – not just because of the variety in employees’ race, gender and ethnicity, but also because of the differences in “sexual orientation, age, geographic origin, physical ability, religion and national origin, class, education, and others.” Firms should strive to create harmony, establish an environment of equality and keep workplace disturbances to a minimum. While these motives may be admirable, the results can be less than satisfying. For example, Black employees often think their employers are asking them to sublimate their identities to maintain an amicable atmosphere. Employees of all races can feel as if they’re “walking on eggshells” with their co-workers. They may feel exhausted by the constant need to be sensitive.

“The recognition of the cost of poor relationships across racial and ethnic lines…likely and hopefully will prompt progress.”

The Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – is the main tool in this quadrant. Employers hope that implementing the Golden Rule’s core idea, that is, treating “everyone as equals,” will help foster pleasant, productive friendships on the job. However, the Golden Rule does not work in the face of a lack of genuine respect across groups and the friction that can result. The Golden Rule approach tends to emphasize people’s differences rather than to recognize their similarities. Excellent diversity management requires both. Your company should strive for the highest degrees of integration and respect for individuals of every identify.  

The third quadrant is managing “diverse talent” to retain a representative workforce.

This third quadrant of diversity management became necessary when the first two quadrants alone “did not resolve a seemingly intractable problem, [the] ongoing challenge of retaining nontraditional workers.” Many diversity-conscious organizations operate – often without knowing it – only within those first two quadrants, which address race, ethnicity and gender imbalances. However, they do not address other kinds of diversity. Leaders have to realize that hiring isn’t the only event that can create diversity challenges. For instance, the implementation of partnerships or mergers and acquisitions can join disparate people from different corporate or national cultures into one workforce. An organization’s diversity strategy should be able to cope with such situations.

When leaders find retaining minority employees difficult, “complexity of diversity” may be the issue. Initiatives set up to mainstream minorities, especially Black employees, may not engage them. Traditional managers who see subordinates “as extensions of themselves” and frequently appropriate their work – are unsuited to inspiring and tapping the potential of new, diverse employees. These managers tend to focus on what makes people different when they should analyze and respond to people’s similarities and shared goals.

“The effectiveness with which an organization engages a diverse workforce ultimately will determine its success in managing diversity relationships and, indeed, maintaining its representation gains.”

“Full workforce utilization” means helping all staffers achieve their potential. You can accomplish this by hiring a diverse workforce, encouraging productive relationships among employees and enabling them to make their own decisions. This means that every supervisor must take responsibility for diversity management. Full workforce utilization might also require a shift in the company-wide culture. Your “systems, policies and practices” must accommodate diversity management and create an atmosphere where managers empower their workers. The major benefit will be reducing costly turnover because fewer minority employees will want to leave. 

This strategy views diversity as the sum of employees’ similarities plus their differences. When your firm enacts this approach properly, every member of your  workforce will feel more included. Then the diversity of your employee population will focus on “more than race and gender.” This strategy means committing to support all the people in your organization, whatever their “demographic and behavioral” differences. This new definition encompasses developing all staffers’ talents equally, so that diversity outreach and management includes even fostering the abilities of white males.

The fourth quadrant is managing your “strategic diversity mixtures” to help you make the most of every employee’s talents.

Once you think of diversity as involving all your employees, extend your thinking to “nonworkforce differences.” This includes diversity issues that arise outside your current body of employees, say, during a merger or in relation to expansion into another country. You may have to bridge cultural gaps in non-personnel areas, such as developing new products.

“Cultural change, though essential, is not enough. Cultural manifestations – systems, policies and practices – must be altered to reflect the change.”

This quadrant views diversity as “the differences and similarities and related tensions and complexities that can exist among the elements of any mixture.” In essence, your leaders must make sound choices while sorting out every possible type and combination of diversity. They should avoid “diversity gridlock” – situations where co-workers can’t accomplish their tasks or complete projects because diversity issues and the human entanglements resulting from them impede progress. In this fourth quadrant, you achieve world-class diversity management by becoming expert at dealing with any sort of diversity complexity that arises in any sphere of your business. But how do you do that? You take the next step in implementation.

Adopt the “Strategic Diversity Management Process” (SDMP) to align your strategies and implement the four quadrants.

To accomplish world-class diversity management, initiate the Strategic Diversity Management Process (SDMP). First, ensure that your company’s accepted internal paradigm, its mission and values, aligns with your strategy. Implementing SDMP will be much easier if your company doesn’t need to make any major cultural changes.

“Diversity comes with associated costs. It can complicate the decision-making and problem-solving process by presenting tasks that would not exist in the absence of diversity.”

Your firm will need three “diversity management skills”:

  1. The capacity to identify “diversity mixtures” – What differences and similarities are you facing beyond race and gender?
  2. The capacity to decide if you need to address any certain mixture – Are you trying to solve diversity-related tensions that don’t really exist?
  3. The capacity to choose suitable reactions to the problem at hand – You can react to a diversity problem in 10 different ways: “include, exclude, deny, isolate, suppress, acculturate, assimilate, tolerate, build relationships” and “foster mutual adaptation.”

SDMP requires “talking the talk,” “thinking the talk” and “walking the talk.”

Your managers need to develop “diversity maturity,” the ability to admit they don’t yet understand all aspects of diversity. However, they should willingly take on diversity challenges. If they can do that, you can implement world-class diversity management in three stages:

  1. Talking the talk – Use an “executive briefing” to educate your team on the goals of diversity management.
  2. Thinking the talk – Engage your team in strategic planning sessions. Study ways that diversity management can help the company move forward.
  3. Walking the talk – Start your implementation, which may involve learning and training as well as shifting your organization’s mission and value paradigm. To facilitate the implementation process, take note of successes that allow your team to celebrate incremental achievements.

To manage diversity effectively, you must be able to handle complexity.

While diversity and complexity often fuel one another, they are not the same thing. Complexities make challenges more difficult to understand or to solve. Diversity can heighten complexity by bringing more voices and viewpoints into the mix, creating static that may tempt supervisors to avoid creating diverse teams in the interest of speedy decision-making. Applying SDMP can harness those complexities productively.

“People are tired of strife.”

Because diversity often brings complexity, business leaders must align their corporate culture and their diversity strategy. The accepted truths in your firm are enduring and difficult for managers to reject. You can accomplish a lot of cultural change through persuasion – but eventually your employees must be able to connect meaningfully with your company’s core truths. To encourage that change in the organization’s basic values, invest time in educating employees. Clarify that your firm can change and explain how cultural change will benefit the bottom line.

Having your heart in the right place isn’t a management strategy.

Take the Bjax Corporation as a fictitious but illustrative example of the challenge of implementing diversity management. Jeff Kilt is CEO of Bjax, a manufacturing firm that unexpectedly became embroiled in race-related workforce issues. A group of employees of color protested that the company was not promoting minority workers as rapidly as other staffers. Kilt, a sensitive and fair-minded leader, wished to respond appropriately. He hired a director of diversity, instituted a diversity council and developed company-wide “programs for minorities.” His minority workers, however, regarded his efforts as superficial, leaving the CEO wondering what he was doing wrong. He was learning the hard way that being right-minded is insufficient for addressing employees concerns.

“So much is said today about differences being good that it’s easy to forget that a few years back no one wanted to be different.”

His solution was to conduct a “full-blown cultural audit” and to attempt to implement the strategic diversity management process. Kilt soon realized that his approach to diversity was limited. He needed to think beyond race and gender and consider diversity in all its aspects and complexities. To accomplish this, he committed to a five-year timeline; created a “Champions Council” that would oversee values and culture adjustments; established an “Accountability Board” to evaluate each department’s goals and implementation; and started sorting out which culture changes would ensure that minorities received appropriate promotions.

Diversity isn’t a project; it’s an ongoing cultural paradigm shift.

Kilt’s company still has a number of issues to sort out, but in implementing SDMP its leaders and employees came to understand that they had mistakenly viewed diversity as a task to complete and forget, rather than as an ongoing change in the corporate culture and how it plays out in the company’s daily activities.

“Obviously, empowerment is an ideal, but to the extent people are engaged, they not only bind with the organization, they also bind with each other.”

With their new insights and determination, they are on their way to hard-wiring effective diversity management into their organization.

About the Author

Diversity expert R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. created the American Institute for Managing Diversity and heads Roosevelt Thomas Consulting & Training Inc.

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