Workplace diversity is a people issue, focused on the differences and similarities that people bring to an organization. It is usually defined broadly to include dimensions beyond those specified legally in equal opportunity and affirmative action non-discrimination statutes.
Diversity is often interpreted to include dimensions which influence the identities and perspectives that people bring, such as profession, education, parental status and geographic location.
As a concept, diversity is considered to be inclusive of everyone. In many ways, diversity initiatives complement non-discrimination compliance programs by creating the workplace environment and organizational culture for making differences work.
Diversity is about learning from others who are not the same, about dignity and respect for all, and about creating workplace environments and practices that encourage learning from others and capture the advantage of diverse perspectives.
For many businesses, it’s a disappointing and unfortunate conclusion: diversity efforts have not made the progress that so many had hoped for since South Africa’s transition to a constitutional democracy. Understanding why South African business and organisations in general have not made more diversity progress is complex. The bottom line: to maximise the impact of diversity efforts, diversity work must be woven directly into the business’ people strategies and the way we manage our businesses.
Diversity efforts were driven in the 80’s, and early ’90’s primarily by the need to begin to adapt to the realities of a shrinking talent pool, and revised legislation ‘outlawing’ discriminatory HR practices based on colour and gender. For instance, ‘Equal Employment Opportunity’ practices and subsequent ‘Valuing Diversity’ efforts focused on a subset of the population, requiring employers to increase the presence of under-represented groups in their workforce.
The scope of diversity work expanded dramatically from 1994 onwards with the promulgation of the South Africa Constitution Act, and from 1998 onwards with the passing of the Employment Equity Act. Employers have been forced (by law) to accelerate the hiring of a more diverse workforce and to remove the barriers to employment progress for previously disadvantaged groups. However, changing the numbers has not been enough; figuring out how to effectively work together is the bigger challenge, and education about differences has been introduced.
While heeding the law is mandatory, this “extra effort,” which focuses on diversity training and interpersonal learning, is still perhaps viewed as an optional extra frequently not tied to the business, and often not as effective as newly ‘affirmed’ leadership intends. While there are a few success stories, there are many cases in which participants either do not know why they are there or are not able to apply what they have learned, and how to apply the tools to their workplace responsibilities, because their corporate culture does not reinforce components of the education they receive.