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Two routes to managing diversity: individual differences or

social group characteristics
Liff, Sonia. Employee Relations19.1 (1997): 11-26.

US practitioner literature and US and UK research on the operation of equal opportunities policies
are reviewed. It is suggested that there are two distinct strands to managing diversity approaches:
one focusing on individual differences, the other on social group characteristics.

Full text
Sonia Liff: Warwick University, Coventry, UK
Managing Diversity is about the realization of the potential of all employees ... certain group-
based equal opportunities need to be seriously questioned, in particular positive action and targets
(Kandola and Fullerton, 1994a, p. 47).
Diversity approaches that encourage managers to ignore the realities of inequality and
discrimination, which create such conditions for people from particular groups, will mean that the
status quo is maintained (Ouseley, 1996, p. 7)."
As the above quotations indicate there is a lively, if at times acrimonious, debate being conducted
about developments in workplace equality policies. Has equal opportunities (EO) had its day? If so
is this because it has been successful in eliminating overt discrimination and there is now a need
to move on to find new ways to tackle more subtle, or stubborn, forms of disadvantage? Or is it
because EO was fundamentally misconceived and needs to be replaced by an approach based on
different principles? Is managing diversity a way of repackaging equal opportunity, strengthening it,
or undermining it?
This article argues that part of the difficulty in providing answers to these questions lies in a struggle
for ownership of the term managing diversity (MD) by those from competing perspectives. This is
not a new problem. In the 1980s authors drew attention to competing models of equal opportunities;
for example, Jewson and Mason (1986) contrasted liberal and radical approaches, and Cockburn
(1989) identified short and long agendas. While the nature of the debate in the 1980s was primarily
concerned with means and ends (equal treatment versus equal outcomes) current arguments, as
becomes a debate in the 1990s, focus on identity. Can people's achievements be explained by their
individual talents and efforts or are they better understood as the outcome of their gender, ethnicity,
class and age? Can anything meaningful be said about the collective experience of all women or are
any generalizations undermined by other cross-cutting identities? In drawing attention to different
social identities of those from ethnic minority groups are we addressing the straitjacket of white male
norms or simply reinforcing outdated stereotypes? Underlying these questions are both practical
concerns with how equality policies can become more inclusive and theoretical issues concerning
forms of equality and the nature of identity.
This article begins by clarifying the underlying differences between EO and MD approaches. It
then identifies a number of different strands within writing from a MD perspective. In assessing
the significance of a possible change of approach in equality policies it focuses on two key issues.
First, the consequences of an approach which highlights differences rather than minimizes them.
Second, the significance of a focus on individuals rather than groups. Managing diversity debates in
North America have focused primarily on ethnic equality whereas EO debates in the UK have been
primarily about gender equality. Both will be drawn on in this paper.
Equal opportunity approaches
To assess what is new about managing diversity it is useful to have an understanding of current
equality approaches to provide a baseline. While it has already been acknowledged that there are
different views as to what constitutes equal opportunities, it is nevertheless possible to identify some
core ideas which characterize this approach (for an overview see Dickens, 1994 or Liff, 1995). The
legal framework which underpins UK EO approaches is one that stresses the importance of treating
people equally irrespective of their sex or ethnic origin. Its objective is that individuals should be
appointed, rewarded, or whatever, on the basis of job-related criteria. Their sex or ethnic origin
should not be considered to be a relevant criteria in their favour or to their disadvantage.
The inclusion within sex and race legislation of provisions against indirect discrimination might be
thought to breach this principle. In such cases, equal treatment may be considered unlawful if it has
a disproportionate effect on members of one sex or ethnic group. However the fact that such an
unequal outcome can be defended if the criteria can be shown to be justifiable on grounds other
than sex or race, modifies this conclusion. Employers are expected to ensure that they are not
reintroducing a decision based on irrelevant considerations of sex or race under another guise. If
a criterion can be shown to be "justifiable" then even if it has an adverse impact it is unlikely to be
declared unlawful - particularly in relation to those not already in post. So, for example, it is unlawful
to consider only men for a particular job (unless there is a genuine occupational requirement), or to
ask for someone over 6ft tall, but it is acceptable, in most circumstances, to only offer a job on a full-
time basis even though it is recognized that this will make it difficult for many women to undertake.
The limitations of this approach, which suggests individuals can be stripped of their gender and
ethnicity for the purposes of organizational decision making, have been widely recognized. One
response in the UK has been Codes of Practice, from the Equal Opportunities Commission and
the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE, 1983; EOC, 1985), which suggest ways not only to
eliminate discrimination but also to promote equality. Measures to achieve the latter (sometimes
called positive action in the UK and encompassing some elements of the US affirmative action
approaches) are based on the view that in many instances it is important to recognize social group
differences which may lead to some applicants or job holders being disadvantaged. Policies can
then be developed which try to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to compete on the same
basis. Employers have been encouraged to create policies relating to career breaks, child care,
flexible working, and the provision of single sex training for this reason. Such approaches have
tended to be pursued by organizations with a particular commitment to equality for whatever reason
and are not a legal requirement.
Such policies again appear to break the principle identified above of ignoring differences. However,
they are perhaps better understood as measures which allow organizations to reduce the likelihood
that such differences will be seen as relevant to their decision making. They aim to create a context
in which everyone is able to demonstrate their relevant capabilities and be judged on that basis.
Managing diversity approaches
In contrast to equal opportunities approaches, which aim for workplaces where an individual's sex
and race is of no greater significance than the colour of their eyes in determining the treatment
they receive, the core idea behind managing diversity seems to be to encourage organizations
to recognize differences. As the opening quotations make clear, however, this does not lead
to a uniform approach. One issue is whether one sees differences as more or less randomly
distributed between individuals or as the characteristics held on the basis of, say, being a member
of a particular ethnic group. This leads to two distinct objectives for equality policies. The first
approach would not see gender or ethnic equality as a specific goal since inequality is not a feature
of members of particular groups. Rather than equality as bland uniformity of treatment, the objective
here is equality as the opportunity to be acknowledged for the person one is and to be helped
to make the most of one's talents and reach one's own goals. The second approach is closer to
existing EO approaches in that it sees inequality as experienced by members of particular groups.
It is distinctive in that it argues that such differences should be acknowledged, and responded to,
rather than ignored. Here equality involves in the restructuring of organizations and management
practices such that women and ethnic minorities can succeed by being themselves rather than
through having to mirror the working patterns of white males.
Dissolving differences
If we take social-based differences as the traditional concern of equality policies, the first approach
to managing diversity could be labelled dissolving differences. It involves a series of initiatives
which stress individualism. Kandola and Fullerton (1994a, p. 47) give the example of allocation
of training: "diversity takes individuals as the primary focus of concern, not groups". If someone
has a training need this should be addressed regardless of whether they are a man or a woman,
and people should not be assumed to have (or lack) particular training needs just because they
are a man or a woman. Differences exist between people, and in line with the diversity label are
seen as important issues for management to respond to. However these differences are not seen
as distributed systematically on the basis of gender (or any other social group membership). As
such, while the intention of such an approach is an "environment in which everybody feels valued",
social group equality is not being given any specific significance as an objective of organizational
policies. Instead diversity issues are said to "go way beyond obvious physical differences to include
differences in communication styles, problem solving, professional experience, functional expertize,
management level, training and education, and work ethics" (Caudron, 1994, p. 56). Policies attempt
to discover individual needs and desires which would help people work more effectively and respond
through, for example, individually-tailored career management or "cafeteria" benefit schemes.
Valuing differences
The other main approach to managing diversity could be labelled valuing (socially-based)
differences. This approach includes initiatives such as the provision of training for employees
from under-represented groups to help them understand organizational processes and increase
their self-confidence, managers being given responsibility for developing such employees, and
the adaptation of policies to recognize different holidays and diets (see for example Copeland,
1988a; 1988b; Greenslade, 1991). These policies acknowledge socially-based differences and
their significance for the perpetuation of inequality. In relation to gender equality such an approach
to managing diversity stresses the need for policies which respond to gender-based differences
between employees. Some of these, for example training in skills where women have traditionally
been under-represented, are about overcoming past disadvantages and allowing women to be more
successful within current organizations. Others, such as allowing all jobs to be worked on a part-
time or job share basis, are about acknowledging that the organization itself has to change. Some
literature talks explicitly about creating an organization where everyone feels they belong rather
than one in which only white males feel comfortable. The organizational rationale for such a policy
approach has been expressed by the vice president and general manager of a US firm as follows:
"all employees need to function in an environment that allows them to participate and contribute to
the full extent of their capabilities" (Clark, 1993, p. 149).
Accommodating and utilizing differences
While dissolving and valuing differences represent the dominant strands in the managing diversity
debates there remain other approaches which seem to come from different perspectives. One
approach, which could be called accommodating differences, includes initiatives which are very
similar to some equal opportunities approaches. Such approaches are committed to gender equality
but aim to achieve this by making policies genuinely open to men and women rather than by
providing special policies for either group. For example, they include recruitment directed towards
qualified members of under-represented groups and support for their career development once
they are in post. This is intended to ensure that talent is recognized despite social differences. In
this vein, British Gas has run an advertisement under a diversity banner which says, "if you have
a disability and a 2(i) degree we can offer you ...". A slightly different slant is given by Kandola and
Fullerton (1994a, p. 49) who include ensuring that all key processes and systems are "regularly
audited to ensure objectivity and fairness".
A rather different sub-theme of managing diversity approaches could be characterized as utilizing
differences. Here social group-based differences are recognized but these are seen as the basis for
different treatment rather than as the focus of equality policies. For example, this approach could
include initiatives such as having parallel career tracks for "career" women and "family" women.
Schwartz (1989) suggested that those women who want to put a career first should be treated in
the same way as men. Those who wanted to combine work with family commitments could have
more gradual promotion, space for career breaks and part-time work and still be valued by the
organization. Women are provided with a trade off: policies to accommodate difference but at the
expense of equality.
Figure 1 summarizes these different approaches to managing diversity within a model which
highlights the degree of commitment to social group equality as an organizational objective and
the perceived relevance of social group differentiation for policy making. This way of categorizing
equality approaches draws on Smeds et al. (1994).
The significance of the move from equal opportunity to managing diversity
The analysis presented above suggests that there are two separate issues which need to be
assessed in considering the significance of a move from equal opportunities to managing diversity.
First, what are the consequences of an explicit acknowledgement of differences and the need to
respond to them within equality policies for our view of equality and how it can best be achieved?
Second, what are the consequences of different approaches to managing diversity - particularly
those which focus on individual differences rather than group-based differences? Taken together
these questions cut across conventional lines of debate both within the equality literature and
that of employee relations. The former has been concerned with the relative merits of ignoring or
highlighting group-based differences. However, the question of a more individualistic approach to
differences has only been raised obliquely via questions about essentialism (what do all women
share?) and cross-cutting identities (do we need multiple groups based on the intersections of
gender, ethnicity, age etc?).
Within employee relations, one would expect the classic debates about individualism versus
collectivism and the resurgence of individualism within some strands of the HRM debates to be
relevant to the discussion. However, the traditional approach to industrial relations has stressed
that a collective approach is the most effective way of representing individual interests (an
approach which leaves little space for talking about individual or group-based differences). In this
context more individualistic approaches are often understood primarily as a way of reducing the
influence of trade unions. For the relatively small group of, mainly professional, workers who are
experiencing "soft" HRM policies the focus has been "to inculcate employee loyalty, commitment and
dependency" (Kessler and Purcell, 1995, p. 348). Through policies such as individualized pay and
career development this approach does seem to be addressing individual needs. However, the focus
of attention has been less on this aspect than on the ability of different policies to change attitudes
and increase commitment (Kelly and Kelly, 1991).
Equality policies which respond to, rather than ignore, differences
Most people would accept that there are differences between men and women, and between
those from different ethnic groups, which are likely to affect their work opportunities. For example,
studies continue to show that women, whether they work or not, spend far more time than their
male partners on domestic work, especially where children or adult dependants are involved
(Bonney and Reinach, 1993; Gregson and Lowe, 1994; Kiernan, 1992). Men are more likely to have
uninterrupted working lives and to work full-time than white women. Ethnic minority men and women
have different patterns of qualifications and work experience than the dominant ethnic group. There
is less agreement, however, as to whether an explicit recognition of such differences helps the cause
of equality.
The approach which has formed the basis for most equal opportunity initiatives is based on the
view that it will probably be disadvantageous to the cause of equality to emphasize a difference.
Awareness of the extent to which some groups are disadvantaged by the ways in which work and
jobs are structured currently is not incompatible with this approach. It can be argued that equality is
best promoted by minimizing the significance of, rather than drawing attention to, these factors within
workplace policies. For example, some North American feminists have argued that it would be better
to encourage organizations to treat pregnant women workers in the same way as they treat workers
with an illness or disability requiring temporary, but significant, absence from work, rather than
to press for policies to be developed specially for them (see, for example, discussions in Bacchi,
1990 and Vogel, 1990). The rationale derives from the moral superiority of the position. Particularly
in contexts where equal opportunity is under attack, or even just not seen as much of a priority,
it is difficult for anyone to argue explicitly against treating people equally. The opposite of equal
treatment, in this context, is seen as "special treatment" - a term which raises issues of unfairness.
More generally it is sometimes argued that if one is challenging a system (sex or race discrimination)
which makes decisions on the basis of social group membership then it is inconsistent to do so via a
system which is itself based on group differences.
Another major reason why many of those who are concerned about equality pursue an approach
which minimizes the significance of group differences is the risk of giving ammunition to those who
feel difference disqualifies members of certain groups from equality or who would seek to exploit
differences in ways which are detrimental to equality. "Women's skills" such as "nimble fingers" or
caring abilities may be referred to in a positive way but they tend to be evoked in relation to a narrow
range of low paid, low status, manual jobs: assembly workers rather than brain surgeons, nursery
nurses rather than directors of social services. In addition such stereotypes tend to be "naturalized",
and hence seen as an unchanging, further undermining equality claims.
The analytical argument underpinning this reluctance to focus on differences is that the significance
attributed to gender differences is a consequence not a cause of inequality. In this view inequality
derives from a hierarchy of power. In relation to gender, "feminists have noticed that women and
men are equally different but not equally powerful" (MacKinnon, 1987, p. 51). Difference, she
concludes, does not explain the subordination of women to men. Rather the ideology of gender
difference is a way of enforcing subordination. The construction of women as different from men
(who are seen as the norm) is, on this view, one of the mechanisms through which power is
maintained. Acker (1990) argues that organizations are gendered through interacting processes
that include: "construction of divisions along the lines of gender - divisions of labour, of allowed
behaviours..." and "the construction of symbols and images that explain, express, reinforce, or
sometimes oppose these divisions" (p. 146). So to engage in a dialogue about difference is to accept
an approach which masks, and rationalizes, inequality.
So, what arguments make other writers think that differences should feature within equality
approaches? Young (1990) argues that an approach which ignores group differences fails to provide
a basis for change. She highlights three major failings: the norms and standards of dominant groups
are not questioned, members of such groups are not encouraged to reflect on their own specificity,
and subordinated groups come to see themselves as having a problem. The issue of how to allow
employees to combine a career with family responsibility illustrates all these points. In an EO policy
which is concerned to ensure that all applicants are given equal consideration for management
jobs it is common to stress that applicants should not be asked about their domestic situation.
The rationale being that (irrelevant) differences between men and women should be ignored and
individuals should be assessed on the basis of their ability to do the job. The consequences of such
an approach are that there is no examination of whether willingness to work long and unpredictable
hours, to travel at short notice, an uninterrupted career history, and other characteristics expected
of successful applicants, are ones that are only possible for those with the level of domestic support
differentially available to men. Men can continue to feel virtuous that their organizations are open
to everyone who can fulfil the terms of the job at the same time as they reject initiatives such as
job sharing as making special provisions for women. Women will continue to feel that if they want
a career it is up to them to "fit in" by not having children or making personal arrangements which
ensure that their domestic circumstances impinge on their working lives as little as possible.
A broader example of the way in which the factors Young identifies can act to subvert equality
initiatives is that they lead those groups who are dominant in organizations to believe that policies
and practices are fair and meritocratic and, as a consequence, that those who fail, or succeed,
do so on the basis of their own talents. In such circumstances those who need extra "help" via
equality initiatives must be inadequate in some way. So, for example, a number of US studies
have identified stark differences in the assessment of prevailing levels of equality by those from
different social groups. One study in the newspaper industry found that 71 per cent of minority
journalists believed that a glass ceiling exists at their newspapers, compared with 35 per cent of
white journalists (Fitzgerald, 1991). Another study found that 81 per cent of men thought their firms
made an effort to pay equally, whereas only 34 per cent of the women believed their firms had good
intentions (Nelson-Horchler, 1991). Organizational decision makers are not immune to such thought
processes even when they are responsible for promoting EO policies. Liff and Dale (1994) discuss
a UK organization widely seen as being a good EO employer. Attempts by minority employees
to highlight continuing instances of discrimination met with resentment and were at times turned
against the complainants who were said to have "unrealistic" expectations.
Salaman (1986) provides a different kind of evidence of men's belief in the existence of the fairness
of current workplace practices. He explores employees' reactions to an equal opportunity policy in
the London Fire Brigade which had led to the recruitment of women and ethnic minority men. The
white firemen could not accept that the organization had previously been discriminating. Instead they
believed that, under the new policy, standards had been lowered to let in inferior applicants. More
broadly, North American experimental research tested reactions to equality initiatives by presenting
people with a series of application details said to come from recently hired employees. In cases
where the evaluators were told that the details came from a woman appointed under affirmative
action programmes they were assessed as less likely to be competent in their job than when the
details were said to come from men or women not identified in this way (Heilman, Block and Lucas,
If organizations pursue positive action initiatives without challenging such views men may feel that
they are now being treated unfairly. Cockburn's (1991) exploration of men's reactions to equality
programmes reports one saying "the women are OK, the black people are OK, even the disabled
people are OK. But me, I'm white, male, average height - who do I turn to?" (p. 67). The prevalence
of such views can undermine many women's commitment to equality measures. The Third Annual
Report of Opportunity 2000 (1994) says that a major barrier to the promotion of equal opportunities
is that "women ... fear male hostility and accusations that they get jobs because of their gender
not their ability" (p. 1). Claims that affirmative action programmes discriminate against members
of majority groups have been widely documented in the USA but hardly any research evidence is
available to substantiate such beliefs (Burstein, 1992).
In sum the case for an explicit recognition of difference within equality policies rests in large part
on the perceived failure of existing policies to change perceptions and practices. It suggests that a
more direct challenge of people's understanding of difference and its significance would be more
effective. This might involve policies to raise awareness of the significance of the experiences
of different groups within the workforce. Where these are found to be the result of prejudice and
discrimination against those who could be successful within the current structures then the focus
should be on ways of ignoring such differences. However, if, as seems to be suggested, the greater
problem is that organizations are structured in ways that disadvantage particular groups then
policies need to focus on changing the organization to make it genuinely more open to all. Ignoring
differences allows those who can adapt to the existing patterns of the dominant group to do so.
Recognizing differences could make them genuinely welcome on their own terms. Such an argument
is persuasive on an analytical level. However it is less clear where the incentive and commitment to
pursue such an approach is likely to come from. It is perhaps in this context that we need to heed
the warnings of those who argue that it is more likely that perceived differences could continue to
provide a major rationale for disadvantageous treatment.
Equality policies based on individuals rather than groups
Where equality policies have rejected an approach based on differences the alternative usually
adopted has been to treat everyone in the same way. This has a strong strand of individualism
- everyone should be judged according to their merits - but has also involved the promotion of a
very uniform approach to the treatment of employees by organizations. Fairness is seen to be best
served by individuals being judged against a common standard and ensuring that benefits are
distributed equally to all. Some aspects of managing diversity approaches suggest that there is
another way forward - one which can acknowledge differences and the need for a policy to respond
to them but which sees these differences as individually distributed rather than as a consequence of
social group membership.
Kandola and Fullerton (1994b) have played an important role in conveying managing diversity ideas
to the UK. In so doing they have made a focus on individuals a key element of their approach (the
"I" in their MOSAIC). As we have seen the rejection of a group approach is far less clear cut in the
US practitioner literature. There the incentive for a new approach is often described in terms of the
continuing imbalance of women and ethnic minorities in senior positions or in the failure to promote
or retain people from these groups. The literature certainly does reflect an interest in representing
equality initiatives as a way to improve workplace policies for everyone rather than as offering
special benefits for a few. However, this is not associated with an unwillingness to recognize the
possibility of group disadvantage and to address it if it does occur. For example Thomas (1990)
describes an organization where it was recognized that black people were not moving up the
organization. Discussions with black and white employees identified a common problem with the
quality of supervision which did not foster professional development. This was addressed to the
benefit of all. However Thomas concludes "Had the problem consisted of prejudice ... a solution
based on affirmative action would have been perfectly appropriate" (p. 117).
The appeal of switching from group-based to individually-based differences as a basis for equality
is strong, at least superficially. It avoids reinforcing damaging stereotypes, recognizes differences
within social groups, and overcomes the resentment that comes from employees feeling that policies
only benefit others. At the same time it claims to provide the support, training, working arrangements
and so on which are needed for each individual to feel welcome within the workplace and to give
their best. Is such a claim credible? To be so, managing diversity approaches need to identify
specific procedures which can deliver the new policy objectives. These need to establish equitable
treatment for individuals in different situations or with different characteristics. Managing diversity
programmes appear to address this in two different ways.
The first is through procedures to accommodate different employee needs and wants. In theory
at least this is relatively straightforward and may involve little more than increased sensitivity to
the significance of different religions and lifestyles and to language. As one piece of advice puts
it "instead of saying, 'Hey, you guys' say, 'Hey, everyone'" (Laabs, 1994, p. 87). In relation to
remuneration packages it presumably involves consideration of benefits of equivalent value. This is
more problematic for claims that each employee has the same opportunities to choose between a
range of equivalent options. For example, Kandola and Fullerton (1994a, p. 50) suggest employees
are offered the opportunity to choose between benefits such as child care and others more "suitable
to their needs". The uneven domestic division of labour makes it difficult to see that this would offer
the same choices to a large proportion of women as it would to men.
The second, and more difficult, issue is the development of policies which provide a way to assess
employees fairly despite their differences. As one US study of research and development staff
says: "in general everyone was in favour of individualized treatment to meet individual abilities
and needs ... . How to accomplish equity in diversity was less clear" (Gordon et al., 1991, p. 22).
The starting point is to find ways to ensure that managers can assess a person against the job
specification, or whatever, without regard to gender or ethnic differences. Most prescriptive guidance
suggests that this can be done by instructing managers to focus on suitability (job specific) criteria
in preference to acceptability (organizational fit) factors. Such guidance, common to both EO and
MD approaches, is becoming problematic at a time when many organizations are moving away
from formal job descriptions in a bid to achieve "flexibility". Research also suggests that it is not
effective at ensuring unbiased decisions are made since managers find it impossible to disentangle
an assessment of suitability from gender and ethnic stereotypes (Collinson, Knights and Collinson,
1990; Curran, 1988; Jewson et al., 1990). Group-based approaches have concentrated on training
managers to become aware of the ways in which different behaviour patterns by, say, women, can,
if interpreted by the standards of men's behaviour, lead to false impressions in a selection situation.
Managers are also helped to question their assumptions about the abilities of members of different
groups. Dissolving differences approaches appear to claim that this is counter-productive but it is not
clear what, if anything, they are suggesting in its place.
In addition, managing diversity policies need to find a way to establish equivalents between different
characteristics. For example, how do organizations choose appropriate selection techniques such
that it is possible to compare fairly the skills of someone who has worked in voluntary organizations
or cared for an elderly parent at home and another who has had a more conventional work
experience? Or what policies would allow the evaluation of the relative merits of two managers
who work in very different ways? There is little explicit discussion of this in the diversity literature
- although there are regular claims that diversity training has allowed managers to accept and
welcome such differences. The answer might be to focus on performance or competence; that
is to focus on the results rather than the methods used. Appealing as this sounds, the literature
on equality issues in relation to appraisal, promotion and performance-related pay suggests that
managers' assessments of performance are also influenced by the employee's gender (Bevan and
Thompson, 1992; Townley, 1990).
There is one area of equality initiatives which has tried to tackle directly the issue of establishing
equivalence across gender differences: the equal value approach to pay equity. There is little doubt
that equal value claims have led some organizations to take a hard look at previously unquestioned
payment systems. However the weight of evidence is that it has proved in practice to be incredibly
difficult to rid evaluation schemes of gender bias (see for example, Kahn and Meehan, 1992). Burton
(1991) argues that the extent of occupational segregation and existing pay differentials make it
impossible for an evaluator to compare abstractly jobs traditionally done by men and by women. It is
not clear what, if any, novel solutions to these long-standing problems are suggested by managing
diversity approaches.
The only area where managing diversity policies do seem to be providing a clearly distinctive
approach is in relation to the greater stress placed on developing an understanding of, and more
positive attitudes towards, different groups within the workforce. For example, Corning introduced
mandatory awareness training for 7,000 salaried employees comprising one-and-a-half days on
gender awareness and two-and-a-half days on racial awareness (Thomas, 1990). Equal opportunity
approaches in Britain have tended to give priority to attempts to change behaviour rather than
attitudes (with the exception of some local authorities' use of racism awareness training) so this may
be a useful change of emphasis. There is research which suggests that well-designed training can
achieve a number of objectives. These include giving participants an increased understanding of the
rationale for equality initiatives, a greater awareness of their own stereotypes, a better understanding
of the significance of different cultures for behaviour, and a context within which they can get to
know others as individuals rather than as embodied stereotypes (see Crosby and Clayton, 1990).
However, there are also many reasons to be cautious. The psychological literature continues to
stress the difficulty of changing attitudes, in comparison to behaviour, and examples from US
companies show that diversity training can increase stereotypes and inter-group friction when carried
out by poor trainers or with insufficient resources (Caudron, 1993).
Are we ready for managing diversity?
Is managing diversity just another passing management fad? If so can we expect to see many
organizations changing the name of their existing EO policies to managing diversity with little
accompanying change in policy substance? As Guest notes in the HRM/personnel context: "this
may serve the useful function of giving a jaded personnel department a new and more contemporary
image. However, unless it also signals a new approach, with some substantive change behind the
rhetoric, a change of title on its own is likely to prove no more than a short-term palliative" (Guest,
1989, p. 48). Kandola and Fullerton (1994a) also appear to be cautioning against such an approach.
However their claim to have carried out a review of diversity policies in nearly 300 UK organizations
seems to fall into precisely that trap. Of their list of the ten most frequently implemented diversity
initiatives, the top three include the words equal opportunities and four others are explicitly targeted
at social groups (Kandola and Fullerton, 1994b, p. 56). This is despite their wider claims that
managing diversity involves a rejection of the core of EO and a stress on individuals not social
If there is to be a change of substance, what form is this likely to take? While the valuing differences
version of managing diversity, which stressessocial-based differences in the context of a
commitment to equality, is likely to have appeal to activists it does not appear to have developed
a distinctive approach to overcoming the problems that equal opportunity policies have faced. In
the meantime, continuing economic problems and competitive pressures in many UK sectors have
made it difficult to maintain a consensus about the importance of pursuing equality issues. At a time
of growth it is possible to offer new opportunities to members of one group without this being seen
as at the cost of some other group. In the current context equal opportunity is seen by many as an
indulgence, inappropriate in a situation where few opportunities exist for anyone. In the absence of
widespread acceptance of a business case (the basis for which is less obvious in the UK than US
context because of the different demographic mix) or strong workplace pressure for equality, it is
difficult to see this approach becoming dominant.
While this context might suggest that no change is most likely, there are a number of reasons for
thinking the individualistic approach towards managing diversity, characterized here as dissolving
differences will have appeal to many organizations. Both the language and the approach have
resonance with some aspects of the "new industrial relations" and HRM. These, at least in their
"softer" versions (Guest, 1987), stress the role of the individual and the importance of involvement
and commitment. Diversity approaches which recognize individual differences within the workforce
seem to fit well with these new management approaches. No longer should individuals wait for the
organization to deliver identical equality to all. Instead the organization is a facilitator empowering
able individuals to realize their full potential and then dedicate it to corporate goals! Such an
emphasis can be seen as having links, in addition, to broader management ideas about the
importance of decentralized organizations, team work and innovation (for example, Kanter, 1990).
For some this approach to managing diversity is seen to have a further advantage. It is a version
of equality which can be "sold" to managers and employees at a time of scarce resources because
it appears to contribute to business goals and support individuals rather than being a business
cost which favours members of particular groups. As such it may seem to be a way of having an
uncontentious equality policy. There are good reasons to be anxious if such defensiveness is the
primary motive for downplaying group disadvantage. Such an approach to managing diversity is
unlikely to be gender or race neutral in its impact. It allows for individual difference but as yet has
no well developed strategy for dealing with the ways in which job structures and personnel practices
have been shown to disadvantage women, ethnic minorities and others and to advantage white
males systematically.
Criticisms of managing diversity should not be taken to imply that there is no problem with existing
equal opportunity approaches. There is now a large body of research which demonstrates its
limitations. These include its tendency to treat women and ethnic minorities as homogeneous groups
leading to a neglect of those who do not fit the stereotypical member. Conventional approaches
to equal opportunities have had limited success at gaining consent, let alone commitment, from
managers and workforce leading to serious problems of implementation. Doubts also remain about
the effectiveness of its prescriptions, particularly those that draw on a narrow equal treatment
The debate around managing diversity provides a valuable opportunity to rethink the strengths
and weaknesses of equality approaches. US experience suggests that a greater recognition
of difference, and of diversity within and between social groups, has the potential to present
equality claims in a more positive light, and to be inclusive of a broader range of employees than
conventional equal opportunity approaches. Those versions of managing diversity which stress
the need for organizations, rather than individuals, to adapt offer an approach to equality which
addresses many of the limitations of current policies.
Some contributions to the debate have sought to present managing diversity and equal opportunities
as polar opposites with the adoption of managing diversity requiring the rejection of all that has
gone before in the name of equal opportunities (or affirmative action in the US context). In some
cases it almost appears as though the problem to be solved is not discrimination but the iniquities
of EO policies! This seems an unnecessarily confrontational approach. Both approaches have to
find solutions to the same types of problems: how can individuals be assessed "fairly" and how can
structures and cultures that work to favour some and disadvantage others be changed? Managing
diversity has some new answers to these questions but also has areas where its rhetorical flourishes
have not been translated into any systematic approach. At its most individualistic it is not clear
how it is any advance on the "gender-blind" approaches whose limitations provided the impetus for
the development of Codes of Practice and positive action initiatives. Its objective to avoid making
assumptions about people on the basis of their sex or race may be laudable. However in a context
where there is widespread evidence that people do make such (negative) assumptions, there needs
to be a strategy for making this a reality.
Ford (1996) has suggested that equality and diversity need to be seen as interdependent for them
to be successful. This echoes many US writers who suggest that it is the success, rather than the
failure, of affirmative action which has brought about an interest in managing diversity. If this is the
case then new approaches are far more likely to bring progress towards greater equality if they build
on strong and successful EO programmes than if they are introduced as a way of trying to disguise a
concern to overcome discrimination at both the inter-personal and structural levels.
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Caption: Figure 1; Element 1

Indexing (details)
Subjects Affirmative action, Minority & ethnic groups, United Kingdom, UK,
United States, US
Locations United Kingdom, UK, United States, US
Classification 6100: Human resource planning, 9190: United States, 9175: Western
Title Two routes to managing diversity: individual differences or social
group characteristics
Authors Liff, Sonia
Publication title Employee Relations
Volume 19
Issue 1
Pages 11-26
Number of pages 0
Publication year 1997
Publication Date 1997
Year 1997
Publisher Emerald Group Publishing, Limited
Place of Publication Bradford
Country of publication United Kingdom
Journal Subjects Business And Economics--Labor And Industrial Relations
ISSN 01425455
Source type Scholarly Journals
Language of Publication English
Document Type Feature
ProQuest Document ID 235201894
Document URL
Copyright Copyright MCB UP Limited (MCB) 1997
Last Updated 2010-06-11
Database ABI/INFORM Complete

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