Is there a place for diversity professionals in the ’21st century organisation’?


As a ‘diversity professional’, some may question the reasons for engaging the chosen topic as it may appear to inadvertently question the very profession I have chosen as my area of expertise – which ultimately puts bread and butter on my table every day. Indeed, given reported cuts to the ‘diversity agenda’, diversity training programs, coupled with the fact that a good number of diversity jobs were amongst those cut off the back of restructuring programs in response to prevailing economic conditions, should this be a topic that we address at this time given clear sensitivities??

I think so. Indeed, the demise of diversity managers as explained above, itself serves as the precise reason for taking a step back to reflect on what may have gone wrong with regard the actual value organisations perceive diversity brings, which may have lead to the cutbacks in the diversity profession, and by implication, its initiatives and key services.

But before proceeding, there may be a need to address a key aspect of this question: What is the ‘21st century organisation’? What does it look like and what are its prevailing needs?

The 21st century organisation is symptomatic and characteristic of the following post-modern realities:

  • Fast paced growth in New Media, New Technologies and easier access to vast amounts of information leading to the birth of the ‘knowledge worker’
  • A rise in ‘global talent’ from a wide range of ‘complex’ backgrounds driven by world immigration and the forces of globalisation which has lead to the birth of the ‘global’ yet ‘localised’ individual
  • A new approach to organisational design driven by present and prospective employee and customer needs and changing desirabilities
  • An ageing workforce and the management of generation ‘X’, ‘Y’ and the future planning for managing the ‘millennial’ archetype – generation ‘Z’ or what I call the ‘Star Trekkers’
  • Greater geographical links between countries and businesses leading to shared legislation and best practices as demonstrated within the EU andAmerica
  • The consequence of the ‘global’ economic downturn and the growth of ‘new’ markets in China, India, Africa and South America, leading to organisations seeking to  increase in their intellectual capital and thereby competitive advantage.
  • The present focus of organisations, driven by market segmentation priorities to deliver real business benefits, which whilst strategically bears in mind people issues, operates within an inclusive framework which looks beyond a simplistic focus on litigation and discrimination issues, to values which promote organisational and people performance, the attainment of strategic objectives achieved through working within the domain of best practice.

The points above, in my view, is, or at least, should be at the heart of what the diversity professionals expertise ought to bring to organisations. Indeed, the term ‘diversity professional’ itself, suggests an individual who has a range of diverse expertises and talents derived from an introspective and experiential understanding of people and organisational needs. However, arguably, this appears not to have always been the case…

The role of the diversity professional, perceived for a long period, more so since the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and the subsequent Macpherson Recommendations, tended to focus mainly on the promotion of the Equality Duties covering the Sex Discrimination Act (1975), the Race Relations Act (1976) and the Disability Discrimination Act (1995): To eradicate unlawful discrimination, advance equality of opportunity amongst groups, and foster good relations in the workplace. Indeed, the consequent expectations of organisations off the back of the aforementioned ‘equality imperatives’, a view generally accepted by diversity practitioners themselves, was that their role and expertise was all about taking on the mantle for developing and monitoring equality policies which ensured the enforcement of the tenets of equal opportunities, further ensuring that organisations remained legislatively compliant and beyond repute by equality bodies and government parastatals.

Now, whilst I understand the historical context of this approach – indeed it is important to point out at this juncture that the UK is a recognised leader amongst its European counterparts, and in America for its progressive workplace anti-discrimination laws, and rightly so – despite this however, in my view, the actual workplace function, job description and the utilisation and application of diversity professionals themselves, was nonetheless strategically myopic, extremely limiting, and in need of radical change and reform – for it placed diversity and diversity practitioners in the very same box it advocated people ought not to be placed in, in the first place.

Over the last decade particularly, demands by business best practice organisations, and management watchdogs for the business case for diversity to be clearly demonstrated, really began the process, as it were, for diversity professionals having to justify their professional existence as specialists in organisations. However, diversity as a professional practice prior to the commencement of this ‘justifying process’ appeared content to sit outside the periphery of mainstream organisational functions – HR, Marketing, Finance, Recruitment, etc.

Indeed, the only time employees tended to come in direct contact with diversity professionals was either during the provision of ‘mandatory’ diversity training programs, investigations regarding discrimination issues, and during employment tribunals. This resulted in employees and indeed the large sections of organisations not knowing what diversity practitioners actually did, how relevant their expertise was to the organisation – and importantly, what diversity was really about. Indeed, as the occupational priority of diversity professionals was geared toward driving legislative compliance and delivering on ‘equal representation’ targets, it tended to focus on the obvious ‘symptoms’ of equality, which unfortunately had the opposite effect of inadvertently facilitating tokenism, enshrining a culture of political correctness based on a fear of ‘difference’, and gradually, yet visibly, leading to a clear disconnect and disengagement with individuals who form the organisational and societal mainstream beyond the stereotypical equality landscape.

The overall effects of the approach above was that it alienated the diversity expertise from other key business functions to the extent that managers just did not get how diversity could possibly positively impact and strategically enhance the recruitment function, organisational change strategies, learning and development initiatives, talent management and development programs, succession planning initiatives, business development, the sustainability agenda, etc. In a nutshell, diversity professionals had been effectively ‘boxed-up’ and separated off from mainstream functions taking on some kind of a ‘mythical status’ that many either did not understand, or if they did, understood it to be about using ‘the stick’ to push legislative compliance. It had little to do with real people as per the areas aforementioned – and to a very large extent, we had been the architects of our own demise, a demise that I believe had a part to play in the apparent separation of diversity from the real needs of the ‘21st century organisation’ leading to recent cutbacks in the diversity expertise within businesses. Change, in whatever way it introduced itself – had to happen…

But the story is not all doom and gloom for there is a clear resurrection and re-birthing process presently occurring. For example, a very good number of independent diversity consultancies have sprung up over the last 3-4 years, many of which whilst delivering on equality initiatives are now also very focussed on improving the bottom-line and strategic intent of organisation through developing and promoting inclusive workplace practices. This change is correspondingly visible in person specifications for diversity positions across all sectors, where diversity is now clearly expected to play a leading role as a strategic enabler for driving sustainability programs, improved competitiveness and customer facing initiatives, and for facilitating a culturally diverse and fully engaged workforce. Indeed the connection between diversity and talent management & development, a key priority for many CEO’s according to findings by the Grapevine Magazine, has been clearly established in the market place such that diversity in many organisations is now inextricably linked to all forms of recruitment and/or talent programs.

A revolution in the diversity arena is now here – one driven by the demand of global market conditions which we ought to embrace proactively, akin to the change that saw the Personnel function shift from being administrative, to becoming an indispensably strategic HR function for business viability.

 But this is still very much a process of rebuilding. And we need to ensure that we re-gain credibility by re-positioning diversity as relevant and indispensable to the growing needs of the ‘21st century organisation’ characterised as it is by a drive for commercial awareness, strategic insight and intent, and over and above, an indispensable need for expertise on the fundamentals of inclusive people management – toward productive and competitive ends.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Is there a place for diversity professionals in the ’21st century organisation’?

  1. Dear Jude,

    I read your very interesting blog. Yes, in my experience, diversity professionals in organisations seemed to be quite isolated and difficult to engage with or even find! I’m an employment adviser for professionals who are refugees in London. On the other hand, there are encouraging numbers of frontline line managers who very much ‘get’ diversity and have good systems in place. I think that the best approach is a whole organisation approach, underpinned by expert HR professionals (including diversity officers) where diversity isn’t seen as someone’s job (ie the ‘diversity’ officers) but is integrated into daily work via supervision and JD’s…. The diversity officer role is therefore key – as an HR enabling role for the organisation. regards Sheila Heard, Transitions.

    • Many thanks for your comments Sheila.

      I couldnt agree more with you that diversity should be mainstreamed and delivered alongside the HR function. Indeed, it should also form a core part of the function, role and job descriptions of business managers who should be performance managed according to set key criteria as this will assist further embed it as a core business driver and enabler.

      I enjoyed browsing through your website.

      With thanks

      Jude-Martin

      • A great distinction to make between equal opportunity professionals and diversity professionals, and I do understand your point here. I do however also believe that being a diversity professional does and should intricately involve managing equal opportunity matters but doing so in such a way as to deliver real business benefits for all people.

        With thanks

        Jude-Martin

      • Dear Jude-Martin,

        If you want to move interest into action just contact me. I currently have highly skilled graduate intern candidates in ICT (front & second line & systems support) and telecoms for example. Experienced people from Iran and Iraq, requalified in the UK with MSc’s and BSc’s and champing at the bit to get back to work. No fee for internships service. Social enterprise fee of 15% for option of recruitment after internship. A good deal for all.

        Show me how diversity works at Capita!

        regards

        Sheila Heard sheila.heard@transitions-london.co.uk

  2. I believe in this new world economy and globalization, diversity in its various aspects is needed more than ever. By various aspects I mean not only focusing on what we look like but what else does someone bring to the organization that helps increase productivity and increase bottom line results. Cultural background’s unique perspectives give organizations value they can’t even imagine. Who can bring all of this together? A diversity professional.

    So I think maybe some diversity professionals sounded more like equal opportunity professionals, how many of these do we have, vice not only those issues but what else does an individual bring to an organization beside what they look like.

    I’m staying the course of being a diversity professional!!

  3. JOHN REEVE

    JUDE, another of your eloquent writings that are great at making the reader think. You make a very valid point about diversity. You talk about re-building and re-positioning diversity as relevent and indispendable to the 21st century organisation and imply the need for commercial awareness as well as strategic insight and as a former 20th century Personnel and Training Manager I think you’re spot on.

    Being accountable for delivering specific business outcomes through diversity initiaitves, having the measurement processes in place and working as partners with operational colleagues are three key enablers.

    Your description of the post modern world…… means that engagment, creativity and the adaptability are key organisational behaviours, delivering measurable business benefits. Well designed diversity strategies will develop capability in all three areas.

    Take care, Jude, and keep writing.

    John

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