Theories and Practices of the Compatibilities Within Diversity, Equality and HRM


The following paper shows a critical analysis of theories and practices of the compatibilities within diversity, equality and HRM. In an era of international networking and mobility, the social and cultural composition of communities in which people live and work is becoming increasingly diverse. (Kram et al., 1996, 108-136) The notion of diversity is predominantly used to refer to the variety of individuals and groups with whom work organizations are confronted in their labour markets among their consumers and their employees.

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Statement of Problem

In the global economy, people use characteristics such as skin colour, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and religion to define — and often defend — their identities and their group affiliations. (Giddens, 2004, 56-109) The blurring of traditional boundaries between social units such as nations and social classes in the process of globalization has given salience to questions of social identity, and, paradoxically, to the reinvention of boundaries between the self and others, and between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Problem Identification

The construction of a sense of identity and belonging cannot be achieved in isolation from others, but only in interaction with them. Discovering and crossing the boundaries with others can be a learning experience, but it can also lead to anxiety because of a loss of control or identity.


In the global village, ‘strangers’ are even more inescapable than ever before and risk-taking cannot be avoided. This holds for individuals and (work) organizations alike. Also of importance is the uneven distribution of resources to deal with differences, i.e. to minimize the risks and to maximize the yields entailed in such crossing of borders. As Zygmunt Bauman (1998) has pointed out, mobility, the differential ability to move through time/space, is absolutely central in this respect. Cosmopolitan citizens and multinational corporations are in the best positions to reap the harvest and be gone when the soil runs dry. Small firms have to make do with what is left in the local labour market, and disadvantaged people of different colours and backgrounds are stuck together in centre cities (Beck, 2004, 1-55).

In consultancy language, diversity and equality are presented as a challenge that can bring competitive advantage to business. This promise will only come true, one is warned, if diversity and equality are managed well. ‘Managing diversity’ has become big business in the United Kingdom. It is, above all, aimed at helping managers and employees to deal with and value cultural differences in order to boost organizational and economic performance. It should also bring about ‘inclusive organizations’, that is work communities in which nobody is privileged or disadvantaged on account of characteristics such as skin colour or ethnicity, and where people can develop their talents and contribute to the realization of corporate goals. The advocates of diversity and equality management define their mission in terms of a double challenge: enhancing social justice by stimulating the recognition and valuation of cultural differences and by a more equal distribution of chances of fulfilling participation in the labour force and increasing productivity and profitability through the cultural diversification of work organizations (Cohen, 2002, 62-103).

In this paper, I will analyze the theoretical and practical tools of diversity and equality management and consider how they relate to organizational performance and social justice. In order to make my analysis more concrete, I will refer to the case of the UK, where managing diversity and equality is, as yet, mainly understood to pertain to relations between people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds in work organizations and less to issues of gender and sexual orientation.

A short terminological clarification is required at the outset. According to population statistics, 16 million people are currently living in the UK, of whom some 9% are officially labelled ‘ethnic minorities’ in view of their immigrant backgrounds in combination with their marginal position in society. (Triandis, 2005, 11-36).

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Readers of the literature on diversity and equality management find a host of promises about the achievement of its basic goals: a humane and decent working climate, fostering competitive advantage by the deployment of as yet unknown capacities and talents, and enhancing personal growth through the need for greater flexibility and creativity in the face of cultural differences. Notwithstanding the fact that such overwhelming promises raise doubts and criticisms, diversity and equality management must be taken seriously in the UK context. It is expected that ethnic minorities will make up 14% of the population of the UK by 2015. In the big cities in the western parts of the country, this percentage will rise to 45% even sooner. (Onstenk, 2002, 137-155) However, the situation of ethnic minorities is not to be envied. From 1985 onward, unemployment among ethnic groups has remained three to four times higher than among the indigenous labour population, even if some groups are doing better than others. Industries on which immigrants traditionally depended for their employment, such as metal working, shipbuilding and textiles, are disappearing very fast. In the knowledge and information economy that is taking their place, ever higher qualifications are required and the better educated oust the lesser educated. As a consequence, the risk of a society divided along ethnic lines is increasing.

The UK government has tried to avert this threat by means of a policy with regard to immigration, education, labour force participation and integration that introduces many obligations and restrictions on minority newcomers and by passing UK employment equity act. At the national level, employers and labour unions have also made some important efforts. In 1990 they signed an agreement to create 60,000 extra jobs for ethnic minorities and to make this an important issue for collective bargaining. (Onstenk, 2002, 137-155) Many of these measures have subsequently failed. Both government and employers have opted for a more decentralized approach in which diversity and equality management is one of the cornerstones. Diversity and equality management must therefore be taken seriously, even though it is not yet clear whether it is an effective way to improve the labour force participation of ethnic minorities. (Hofstede, 1980-213-215) Diversity and equality management has thus found its way into many prominent corporations in the UK where it is embraced as the ‘soft’ way out of the present stalemate in the debate about the soaring rate of unemployment among ethnic minorities. Moreover, in the current political conjuncture in the UK, market solutions for public policy embarrassments are well received. The question remains, however, as regards how well diversity and equality management is prepared to meet these difficult challenges?

Analysis and Critical Evaluation

The literature on diversity and equality management in the UK still largely consists of general treatments, handbooks and case descriptions. Research progress on the practice of diversity and equality management, that is what is actually being done to create a diverse work force and the results of these different approaches, is much slower. This body of work enables us to analyze and critically evaluate several crucial defining characteristics. (Hofstede, 1980-213-215)

Elements of the approaches mentioned above are often mixed and fused in the practice of diversity and equality management, but it is the emphasis on cultural differences that is the distinctive trait of the trade. This specific approach and its object, the multi-ethnic composition of work organizations, have become ingrained in a specific institutionalization of diversity and equality management, i.e. as the business of agencies in the field of training and consultancy. The practice is premised on the idea that it makes sense to deal with problems concerning ethnicity in isolation from other aspects of social relations between employees, managers and employers. Moreover, it gives rise to the notion market for a quick fix of temporary problems. Diversity and equality management should secure or restore business as usual and is essentially defensive. This limits its potential to develop into an integral and innovative corporate practice. In the UK, the number of companies and institutions that make serious efforts to become multicultural organizations in that sense is still quite small. Research reports suggest that governmental and social sector organizations and the bigger, and especially service-oriented corporations are doing better than small- and middle-sized business. (Beck, 2004, 1-55)

A further implication pertains to the range of issues tackled in practice. It is well nigh impossible in the UK to confront a firm or a department with discriminatory tendencies in its policies or in the interactions between colleagues. At the organizational level, procedures for handling complaints and initiating disciplinary action in case of harassment, which are quite common in Canada and the United States, are virtually non-existent. Open and direct discrimination is usually condemned, but is seldom perceived to happen in everyday work situations of the employees involved. Discrimination is elsewhere. At the other end of the spectrum, positive discrimination in favour of ethnic minorities stirs up bad feelings since it is seen to endanger vested positions. (StephensoN et al., 1996, 168-196) In the middle zone between these extremes, diversity agencies are expected to do the job in the more acceptable terms of equal opportunities and mutual acceptance. Stimulating a professional attitude, enhancing corporate communication, making up for deficiencies in qualifications of minority candidates and giving them a fair chance are the coalition goals on which the different parties involved are likely to agree. The question deemed crucial in this endeavour is how far people in various positions in the organization understand and accommodate cultural differences. Hence, training concentrates on questions of cultural awareness, diversity and equality management and intercultural communication. In the actual practice of diversity and equality management in the UK, the influence of the discrimination approach is quite limited. Indeed, diversity agencies have been keen to dissociate themselves from governmental equity policies and legislation. (Triandis, 2005, 11-36)

Training and, to a lesser extent, organizational consultancy are the favourite methods. There is frequently not enough time for thorough observation and analysis of the situation in a work organization prior to an intervention. An extended interview with the customer must usually suffice in order to fill in ‘cash-and-carry-training modules’ with some local colour. Most corporations want quick solutions and have more than one reason to keep the room for in depth analysis as limited as possible. Most agencies and consultants in the field of diversity and equality management bend to the discipline of the market. As a consequence of these restrictions, diversity and equality management projects are generally not capable of penetrating either broadly or profoundly into organizations, nor are they, as a rule, allowed to organize follow-up activities.

The underdevelopment of diversity and equality management practices in the UK cannot be blamed exclusively on the conceptions, methods and goals of the agencies involved. First, diversity and equality management practices must operate in a field with a history in which, time and again, strategies to change interethnic relations tended to end in disappointment and controversy. (StephensoN et al., 1996, 168-196) Therefore, quick results cannot be expected, even when there are promising developments in some sectors. The routines reproducing ethnic inequalities in the UK are too deeply ingrained for that. Second, diversity agencies do not have a strong market position. They are rarely capable of controlling or even influencing the conditions in which their work is done. Moreover, in the companies and institutions in which they intervene they are confronted with deeply rooted routines, time pressures, conflicts of interest, tenacious resistance and the harsh realities of a short-term business orientation.

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Together, the bias in the various approaches and the kinds of constraints encountered in the field make for a practice of diversity and equality management that has scaled back its objectives, routinized and standardized its methods of intervention, and become subject to the illusion, indeed sells the illusion, that it can fulfil its promise to foster productivity and social justice. In our view, diversity and equality management will surely fall short of such promises if it continues to ignore the organizational contexts in which it operates. (Abell, 1997, 1-10)

Strengthening Political And Social Relations

Diversity and equality management has set itself the double goal of fostering social justice and productivity. As far as it contributes to productivity, diversity is indeed a ‘business issue’. And there are signs that, for instance, in retail, banking and insurance this awareness is growing fast and has created job opportunities for ethnic minorities. However, under the current conditions in the field, diversity and equality management can only bring as much social justice as the corporate interest will allow. Work organizations do not have a natural or inherent stake in a more just distribution of labour. (Kram et al., 1996, 108-136) This is aptly illustrated by the plea of the employer organization representing small and medium-sized businesses in the UK to alleviate the current labour-market shortage by lengthening the working week and recruiting in neighbouring EC countries. It is argued that the existing ‘silent reserve’ of unemployed does not match the demand. The practice of diversity and equality management cannot hope to accomplish much in the way of an equal distribution of opportunities in the labour market, the valuation of cultural differences, or the fostering of inclusive organizations, if it cannot be based on adequate policies in the fields of education, labour market and the struggle against discrimination. Diversity and equality management should therefore actively seek out partners in governmental and political institutions. Otherwise, diversity and equality , window dressing for persistent job ghettos at the bottom end of the labour market (Kram et al., 1996, 108-136).

Dilemmas within a Problem Solving Context

Embracing the merit-principle, as so many of the advocates of diversity and equality management do, will not bring equity a step further. On the contrary, it ignores the increasing division in UK companies between a tenured core of employees and a periphery of flexible, part-time and temporary workers with little or no perspective of upward mobility. Moreover, it denies the fact that the allegedly ‘level playing field’ within ‘colour blind’ companies is obtained by excluding candidates from ethnic minorities on a disproportional scale. Those who do not work and those in the periphery of companies and institutions do not merit equal treatment.. Approaches and practices of diversity and equality management that do so defeat their own goals. They try to stimulate the valuation of cultural differences within the structures of a process that connects such differences continuously to social inequalities. The functioning of work organizations is co-responsible for the creation of this connection and for ensuing societal tensions. (StephensoN et al., 1996, 168-196)

Diversity and equality management must therefore intervene in the social and cultural order of work organizations. However, it can never make significant progress on the road to multiculturalization if it restricts itself to those organizations. This same observation holds true in order to break the vicious connection between cultural difference and social inequality and to alleviate some of the tension between social justice and productivity, the double goal of diversity and equality management. In my view, developments in the demographic composition of labour and consumer markets and ensuing problems of human resources management and organizational development should not be isolated from the broader social and political make-up of a society (Giddens, 2004, 56-109). The socio-cultural diversification of a society impacts both on the competitive capabilities of work organizations and on the health of the nation state. Both domains influence each other profoundly. The incapacity of work organizations to make use of the available ‘foreign capital’ in meaningful ways has serious repercussions for the position of newcomers and minorities in a country, for their interaction with the established citizens and for their ties with or faith in the public institutions of that country. Conversely, the incapacity of a government to equip newcomers sufficiently for labour force participation and access to relevant social institutions, to prepare its citizens for a multicultural society, and to protect them from the harsher consequences of the globalizing economy impacts deeply on the health and the performance of work organizations operating from its territory (Berry et al., 1997, 291-326).


Diversity and equality management is necessarily practised where business strategy and government policy, and where productivity and social justice meet and, more often than not, collide. We have argued that this is a challenge that can only be fruitfully faced by a practice with a broad scope and a keen awareness of its position in the field. With that in mind, we highlighted some of the more serious theoretical and methodological shortcomings of managing diversity and equality in the UK. These shortcomings result in a rather standardized, peripheral, quick fix practice that is tailored to the demands of the market and does not address the overall make-up of organizations and their connections to society. Diversity and equality management has concentrated exclusively on questions of cultural difference, qualifications and respectful attitudes with regard to ethnic minorities and isolated itself from organization theory. However, diversity is such a far-reaching and enduring phenomenon that it will eventually impact on the core of work organizations in a global society. (Abell, 1997, 1-10) Surely fighting prejudice and discrimination, learning about and valuing cultural differences and developing relevant work qualifications will all remain relevant in the future. However, such endeavours can only bear fruit if work organizations are seriously ready to face and work on the dehumanizing consequences of supposedly neutral organizational arrangements, routines and relations. They will only be of use when work organizations become responsive to and take co-responsibility for the changes, the risks and the inequities that they produce in society. In my view, the contextual approach to managing diversity and equality can help them take some crucial steps in this direction.


Abell, Paul, Anne E. HAVELAAR, and M.M. DANKOOR. 1997. The Documentation and Evaluation of Anti-Discrimination Training Activities in the Netherlands. International Migration papers. Geneva: ILO., 1-10

Berry, John W., and David SAM. 1997. “Acculturation and Adaptation.” Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology. John W. Berry et al., eds. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 291-326.

Beck, Ulrich. 2004. “The Reinvention of Politics: Towards a Theory of Reflexive Modernization.” Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Traditions and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order. Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash, eds. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1-55.

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Cohen, Phil. 2002. “‘It’s Racism what Dunnit’. Hidden Narratives in Theories of Racism.” ‘Race’, Culture and Difference. James Donald and Ali Rattansi, eds. London: Sage/The Open University, 62-103.

Giddens, Anthony. 2004. “Living in a Post-Traditionalist Society.” Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Traditions and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order. Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash, eds. Cambridge: Polity Press, 56-109.

Hofstede, Geert. 1980. Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values. Beverly Hills, London: Sage, 213-215

Kram, Kathy E., and Douglas T. HALL. 1996. “Mentoring in a Context of Diversity and Turbulence.” Managing Diversity: Human Resource Strategies for Transforming the Workplace. Ellen E. Kossek and Sharon A Lobel, eds. Cambridge, Mass., Oxford: Blackwell, 108-136.

Onstenk, Jeroen. 2002. “Skills Needed in the Workplace.” Learning across the Lifespan: Theories, Research, Policies. Albert C. Tuijnman and Max van der Kamp, eds. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 137-155.

StephensoN, Karen, and David LEWIN. 1996. “Managing Workforce Diversity: Macro and Micro Level HR Implications of Network Analysis.” International Journal of Manpower, Vol. 17, No. 4/5, 168-196.

Triandis, Harry C. 2005. “A Theoretical Framework for the Study of Diversity.” Diversity in Organizations: New Perspectives for a Changing Workplace. Martin M. Chemers, Stuart Oskamp and Mark A. Constanzo, eds. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Sage, 11-36.

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