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The State of Diversity in Today’s Workforce

By Professor  Dr. David Divine

Diversity. What is it? What does it look like? What relevance does it have to you personally and for the economies of Atlantic Canada and nationally?

In a book titled, Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation Through Diversity by David Livermore (2016, American Management Association), an exploration is made of what is diversity and when defined in a particular way, how can it be managed as to lead to innovation and economic benefits.

The first step is to be clear about what is meant when we talk about diversity. The term can mean a variety of things, and when used, clarity is essential. Broadly speaking, it can include any difference, but if you wish to cover all distinctions that individuals possess the term ends up becoming meaningless. A structure needs to be imposed. Livermore seeks to provide this by defining diversity in a business setting, organizational structure as linked to a “culture”, a grouping of individuals of some sort possessing certain traits in common, requiring “a shared pattern of beliefs, values, behaviours, customs, and attitudes”. Such “collective programming” can differentiate one group, one culture from another.

Diversity, therefore, is a way of describing any group that includes two or more cultures working and/or relating together. Of course, cultures and groups are constantly evolving, changing as a result of experiences, time, events and circumstances within their control and those that are not, and so on. But what we have here are collections of individuals who are linked in markedly discernible ways, sufficient to differentiate themselves from other groupings. However, we are simultaneously part of other collections, cultures, too, such as organizational and professional, socio-economic, racial, ethnic, national origin, gender identity and gender expression, religious, sexual orientation, ability, generation, etc. Depending on where geographically located, certain markers of diversity such as just outlined may be seen to be more important than others by decisionmakers. That is the starting position on any discussion on diversity. The term is constantly evolving.

Such linkages—connections between individuals sufficiently clear to distinguish them from others in a neutral environment, devoid of powerful influences imposing a value on such differences—would not cause any difficulty or challenges to be overcome in the workforce. Regrettably, we do not live in a value-free environment. In the day-to-day operation of businesses and other organizations employing staff, there are explicit, or more often unseen, perceptions of placing notions of worth on differences, and actions are taken based on such. These notions are ingrained, generational, institutionally underpinned and complicit, routinely exercised, often without any conscious thought. It is ‘the way we do things here’. Such ways of seeing and the associated actions are stitched into our shared understandings of the world around us, partly shaped by our upbringing, the people around us, the geographic area we live in, what we have been told or experienced ourselves, what we feel is true, accurate, or common sense that, ‘Everybody I know and respects thinks the same way.’

In 2015, Deloitte published a major piece of research titled The Radical Transformation of Diversity and Inclusion: The Millennial Influence (also known as Generation Y, born 1980-1995). Millennials were uniquely seen as viewing diversity of thoughts, cognitive diversity, as a critical foundation block for an inclusive culture that supports “engagement, empowerment and authenticity”. Such diverse collections of ideas, philosophies, experiences and thoughts fuel the solving of business problems “through a culture of collaboration…It’s about connecting those individuals, forming teams on which everyone has a say, and capitalizing on a variety of perspectives in order to make a stronger business impact”. This was found to be in stark contrast to older generations (Generation X) who viewed diversity “from the perspectives of representation and assimilation” (p.1).

In a 2018 research project titled, Uncovering Talent: A new model of inclusion, Deloitte discovered that the pressures within businesses to conform are so intense that employees devise strategies to “cover” their differences. Stemming from the sociologist Erving Goffman in 1963, “covering” described individuals with visible differences that attracted stigmatized values, making “a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large”. They sacrificed their authentic selves to be more acceptable to and less distinct from the others in the group. The 3,129 employee respondents in the survey covering 10 industries included a range of ages, genders, races/ethnicities, sexual orientations and levels of seniority in the organizations. In spite of the fact that each of the organizations surveyed had “inclusion policies”, 83 per cent of “lesbian gay bisexual individuals”, 79 per cent of “blacks”, 67 per cent of “women of colour”, 66 per cent of “women”, 63 per cent of “Hispanics” and 45 per cent of “straight white men” stated that they engaged in covering. None of the respondents stated that they were excluded, “but on what terms they felt their inclusion rested. Often that perceived social contract involves managing their identity in a way that the dominant group would not have to do” (p4).

The impact on the individual employee and on the organization employing them is considerable. Personal pain is incurred in feeling one has to cover to survive in the organization and it takes energy that can be better used to advance the goals of the business. The survey explored whether the source of the expectation to cover came from the leaders of the organization or from the “organizational culture”. Fifty-three per cent of respondents felt that the leaders “consciously or unconsciously have an expectation that their employees will cover”. Fifty-one per cent of respondents felt that this expectation led to decreased commitment to the organization. Forty-eight per cent of respondents felt that their organization had a cultural expectation that employees should cover. Cultural expectations are those that cannot be attributed to a particular person or group. Fifty-five per cent of respondents felt this resulted in their diminished commitment to the business.

Coupled with being clear about what diversity is—and the often hidden estimation of worth we place on the ingredients of difference associated with that diversity—is the necessity of trying to be open and honest and non-defensive about what we really feel about the differences surrounding us in the people we interact with. We need to allow ourselves to exchange thoughts with others in a safe, non-threatening space, about where we got our knowledge from about the diversity around us and the values we hold about those differences. We also need to learn about the impact of our valuation on those possessing the differences. This takes courage. It is a risky and challenging conversation but a dialogue that needs to take place. Our thinking about difference and how we place worth on aspects of difference is learned. It can be unlearned. We do not need to be defensive. We are not personally or individually responsible for what we have been taught without having had an opportunity—or wishing to seek one—of hearing about alternative narratives on the topic. Let us talk and learn together about each other’s unique selves. As cited earlier in the 2015 Deloitte research, the views of millennials contribute to a way forward.

Conversations about differences between us, how to learn respectfully about those differences, the worth we place on those and the impact of such valuation on the individuals perceived to possess them must be carefully managed. Differences can be immediately observable and permanent, while others can be unseen and possibly episodic. Without such thoughtful preparation we cannot move to the next stage, that is how can we use our mosaic of differences collectively to move our business forward and more successfully achieve our goals. There is no single right way to do this. Each organization is unique. What works for one organization may not work for another.  Each business and its workforce, when addressing and managing differences, must construct a tailored way forward that addresses the particularities of that organization and initiate mechanisms of regular monitoring and evaluation to see whether the objectives are being met. This is not a quick fix. It will take time and demands an incremental approach and the involvement of all members of staff. It will evolve in time and the workforce will dictate the pace and whether the intent is successfully realized; not management.

According to Livermore, there are two kinds of differences “that most typically influence workplace behaviour”: Visible diversity deriving from ethnicity, age, gender or physical disability and underrepresentation in the workforce of people from cultures different than most members of the group. In this article, the focus of diversity has been on those two areas: Visibly different and/or underrepresented in the workforce.

In conclusion, millennials are more inclined to see diversity not in terms of demographic characteristics but in terms of thoughts, perspectives and experiences. They see inclusion as a fundamental part of business, a ‘non-negotiable’. They are the future. The way ahead is finding pathways of positive connection among employees and using the multiple diverse contributions from this team working together toward a common goal.

About David Divine

David Divine
Professor David Divine is a published author, columnist, world traveller, and speaker on areas relating to social justice and the lived experiences of individuals and communities. He is managing Director of Footprints Life Coaching. Professor Divine was the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University from 2004 to 2009, in addition to being a fully-tenured Professor of Social Work. For more information, visit www.daviddivine.co.

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