Diversity in the workplace: Diversity for Diversity’s Sake?
March 10, 2016
What does diversity mean to you? For me, I often see “diversity” visualized in stock photography, typically, an image of hands over hands of varying skin tones or perhaps a group of smiling people of different races. It doesn’t take much, really, to look diverse. But what does it mean for a company to actually be diverse?
In 19th century France, a movement called l’art pour l’art, or “art for art’s sake,” emerged among artists and literary circles. The idea was, generally, that a work of art had intrinsic value simply because it was art, and this value could be divorced from any moral, instructive or even utilitarian function. Supporters of this idea believed that art needed no justification, and didn’t need to have a specific purpose or function in society. It was intended to liberate the artist from acquiescing to the demands of patrons or the public. Beauty was reason enough for creating art. As Oscar Wilde put it, “A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers.”
This entire philosophy rests on a few faulty premises. No individual can look at a piece of art without his or her experiences coloring the interpretation about the piece. A flower does not blossom for its own joy. A flower is part of an interconnected ecosystem of plants and animals, each seeking to stay alive and continue the genetic line by making the best use of available resources. Each of us can paint a picture of something we think is pretty, fulfilling the “art for art’s sake” goal, but what is pretty to me might be ugly to you. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Project Runway or Trading Spaces, you’ll know exactly what that looks like in practice.
I see a parallel issue arising among organizations who are seeking to implement or improve workforce diversity. You’d be hard-pressed to find a business leader who would say that diversity in the workplace is a bad thing, but how do we move from “diversity for diversity’s sake” to a strategic approach that can move the business forward?
“Diversity for diversity’s sake” usually ends up being a quota-driven game. We need to hire more women, so we do, for example. The problem with this approach is that there is no ideal formula for the “correct” amount of workforce diversity. It will vary across industry, company size and even from department to department within an organization. Further, simply being “diverse” is no longer enough. "Diversity for diversity’s sake" works in a stock photo, but it won’t create the culture of inclusion and collaboration necessary to move an organization toward its goals.
The foundation of a successful diversity strategy must be inclusion. It’s not enough to have a bunch of people in a room together if they aren’t empowered to share their varying opinions and experiences and make positive contributions. When a certain demographic is the majority in an organization or department, the minority can feel pressured to “fit in” rather than celebrate differences. A focus on collaboration and embracing varying perspectives can make all the difference.
Randi Kenney is the Online Content and Community Manager for the HR Strategy & Talent Acquisition Practice at the Human Capital Institute. Prior to joining HCI, Randi has worked in marketing strategy and communications, public and media relations and project management for a variety of industries including manufacturing, financial/banking, nonprofit and consumer franchise/retail. Randi also has experience in enterprise-wide software implementation and training for B2B sales organizations. Randi's experiences in marketing and IT have demonstrated that interconnectedness and visibility are vital to an organization, and seeks to help HCI members embrace those principles as part of their HR and overall company strategy.