Prejudice at the workplace – is diversity management the right answer?


Let us start by agreeing what we are actually talking about here. 

The definition of prejudice according to Merriam Webster:
1:  injury or damage resulting from some judgment or action of another in disregard of one’s rights; especially :  detriment to one’s legal rights or claims

a (1) :  preconceived judgment or opinion (2) :  an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge
b :  an instance of such judgment or opinion
c :  an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics

The origins of prejudice trace back to upbringing, society and cultural environment.  Current wisdom, at least in the US, answers to the issue of prejudice in organizations by promoting diversity, diversity management and diversity education.

Prejudice is perceived as being directed against race and gender.

But taking above definition into account and, historically, prejudice in organizations is not only prevalent in multiracial or mixed gender environments. Prejudice can and often does emerge against another individual of very much the same race and gender. Answering the prejudice question just with diversity therefore only covers a small section of the issue and has very limited impact on the eradication of prejudice in general.

Also the current management of diversity may even cause more harm than good:
“Diversity management stresses differences, this stress on differences is accomplished by a categorization of collective differences, which positions women and minorities as devalued and undifferentiated ‘others,’ creating and reinforcing social stereotypes and erasing individual and intra-group differences. Implicitly, the ‘WASP’ is the norm against which all ‘others’ are compared and found lacking.” ¹

Now, if prejudices originate at least partly in the cultural environment, then an organization’s culture should be, at least partly, able to counter this influence. An organization’s culture is directed by its vision and ring-fenced by its values. Both can be implicit and explicit.
Let us therefore postulate that rather than Diversity Management, the shared values within the organization’s culture have the most significant impact on prejudice in the workplace. Actual experience over decades working with clients worldwide, has demonstrated that two particular values ‘Respect’ and ‘Transparency’  have been shown to be extremely powerful in reducing the occurrence of prejudice in organizations. That was especially the case when these were found in combination with a strong prevalence of a leadership core-competency: ‘generate, build and receive trust.’

Understand us correctly; diversity and diversity management as well as diversity education are all beneficial on a number of levels – generating ideas for innovation, looking at issues from different points of view, etc. etc., all useful things for an organization. What we question is whether diversity management  etc . is a useful approach for reducing prejudice in organizations. It is our experience that the impact is doubtful, to say the least.

Let us give an example from our own environment. Where we often have to deal with prejudices is in client environments and one example stands out. We were advising a very large Japanese bank on post-merger culture integration and our advisor was a lady with prior experience advising the same client.
This client engaged a new CFO, who had a strong dislike of being advised by Females. This dislike went to the extent that whatever our advisor suggested was boycotted by the executive on the basis that ‘women should not be in that position but be at home, cook and bear children’ (Actual quote) And our advisor was not the only one targeted, company employees were very much in the same shooting line. Now, legal threats , and company policy on discrimination were already present with no discernible effect. Only a very careful process,  where our CEO worked alongside our advisor, of building trust and at the same time convincing the person of respect and transparency as requisites for successful interaction, brought a grudging acceptance of our consultant – and of female colleagues.

These three components – respect, transparency, and management’s ability to generate and receive trust, proved over time and time again to be the most powerful advocates against prejudices in the workplace. To our knowledge this degree of change has not been achieved by legal threat or diversity talk.

¹ Evangelina Holvino a,, Annette Kamp, Diversity management: Are we moving in the right direction?
Scandinavian Journal of Management (2009) 25, 395—403

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