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International Journal of Manpower

ISSN: 0143-7720

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Subject Area: Economics

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Employment equity, affirmative action and managing diversity: assessing the differences

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DOI (Permanent URL): 10.1108/01437729610127668

Article citation: Carol Agócs, Catherine Burr, (1996) "Employment equity, affirmative action and managing diversity: assessing the differences", International Journal of Manpower, Vol. 17 Iss: 4/5, pp.30 - 45




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The Authors

Carol Agócs, The University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada

Catherine Burr, Human Resources Consultant, London, Ontario, Canada


The authors would like to thank Sharon Kahn, Bob Noftal, Paul Scott, Lynne Sullivan, Anil Verma and Bill Wilkinson for their helpful criticisms and comments, and Jerry Mulcahy (Head, Business Library) and Wendy Bichard (Centre for Administrative and Information Studies) for their expert assistance.


Affirmative action in the USA, and employment equity in Canada, are policy frameworks that have developed through the use of legislation, regulation and decisions by courts and administrative tribunals, as mechanisms for addressing discrimination in employment. Managing diversity, in contrast, is a voluntary initiative by corporate decision makers, at the level of the firm, in response to the growth of diversity in the workforce and marketplace. Provides a framework for comparing and assessing the three approaches and choosing between them.

Article Type:

Research paper


Assessment; Canada; Employment; Equal opportunities; Policy; USA.


International Journal of Manpower









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Beginning in the mid-1980s in the USA and the late 1980s in Canada, a human resource management intervention known as “managing diversity” or “valuing diversity” has been adopted in a growing number of workplaces. Since it is a voluntary corporate approach, the composition of diversity management programmes varies widely from one organization to another. Managing diversity is primarily a response to demographic changes including the increasing presence of women, racial minorities and immigrants in the workplace and in the client and customer populations (Abella, 1984; Towers Perrin and The Hudson Institute, 1990). In the USA where it originated, managing diversity also represents a reaction against affirmative action, an unpopular policy in many quarters. Some have claimed that managing diversity provides a less controversial alternative to affirmative action, others see it as complementary to a mandatory policy that is still needed as an antidote to inequality, while still others view managing diversity as a strategy for dealing with issues that affirmative action left unaddressed. These issues include the retention and career development of women and minorities hired under affirmative action plans, and the need to warm the chilly climate for these groups in many workplaces.

Human resource practitioners and others concerned with issues of equity and diversity in the workplace have been receptive to claims about the potential benefits of managing diversity, and it is being widely adopted in Canada as well as in the USA. Yet there is confusion about what this approach has to offer and about how it relates to employment equity - Canada’s distinctive response to inequality in employment - and to affirmative action, the US policy response to employment discrimination. Is managing diversity a new and higher form of employment equity? Is it a substitute or replacement for employment equity or affirmative action? Or can managing diversity find a place as part of a broader policy approach to inequality in employment? The discussion that follows sketches and compares affirmative action, employment equity, and managing diversity, in order to provide a framework for comparing and assessing the three approaches and choosing among them.

Diversity and inequality in the workplace

Employment equity, affirmative action, and diversity management represent responses to two enduring realities of both the US and Canadian populations and labour markets: diversity and inequality. Both nations confront a global marketplace, and organizations are dealing with diversity in their client or customer populations as well as among their employees. Responding effectively to a more heterogeneous customer base is an urgent requirement in the growing service sector, both public and private. Moreover, workforce diversity presents a challenge to organizations that are devolving a variety of responsibilities to decision-making teams, which increasingly consist of individuals of varying backgrounds.

In many organizations, the traditionally dominant white male working population is now or may soon be a numerical minority, although this group still controls the levers of power and decision making in organizations (Adler, 1993). For the new majority in the workplace and the marketplace - women and racial minorities, together with persons with disabilities and aboriginal peoples - discrimination and disadvantage are persisting realities that the passage of time is not changing (Agócs and Boyd, 1993). It is increasingly recognized that inequality and disadvantage on the basis of race, gender and disability results from discrimination that is systemic - deeply embedded within the culture and structures of the workplace. In Action Travail des Femmes (1987), the landmark Supreme Court of Canada case which identified systemic discrimination in the employment practices of Canadian National Railway, systemic discrimination in the workplace was described as “discrimination that results from the simple operation of established procedures… none of which is necessarily designed to promote discrimination”. Systemic discrimination may be defined as patterns of behaviour that are part of the social and administrative structures and culture of the workplace, and that create or perpetuate a position of relative disadvantage for some groups (and advantage for others), or for individuals, on the basis of their group identity.

The existence of systemic discrimination reflects the reality that the workplace was designed by and primarily for a working population that was white, Christian, able-bodied, male, and supported by a full time unpaid domestic worker - the “housewife”. Many traditional employment practices remain unchanged even though the labour market has become much more heterogeneous with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, and disability status. These traditional practices tend to create privilege for those who were (and remain) in a position to establish and regulate workplace policies, practices, and culture, and disadvantage for women, racial minorities, people with disabilities and aboriginal peoples.

Affirmative action

As Table I suggests, affirmative action originated in the USA in the mid-1960s to early 1970s as a response to deeply entrenched patterns of racial discrimination in institutions of employment and education, and the resulting exclusion, segregation and disadvantage of blacks. Under federal regulation, employers who received contracts, grants and other benefits from the US government were required to collect and report data on the composition of their workforce and to set goals and timetables for hiring in order to improve the representation of disadvantaged groups that were underrepresented relative to relevant labour markets. These groups included women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and American Indians. (Persons with disabilities are now covered under The Americans with Disabilities Act, 1991.) Compliance with affirmative action hiring requirements was enforced in the 1970s, although not effectively or vigorously according to some critics (e.g. Benokraitis and Feagin, 1978). Civil rights complaints, litigation, and costly settlements of discrimination cases also impressed on employers the need to prevent discrimination and to implement affirmative action.

Enforcement in the USA was largely discontinued in the 1980s under the Reagan and Bush administrations, which were hostile to the principle of affirmative action (Taylor and Liss, 1992). A number of studies on the effects of affirmative action and consent decree requirements during the 1970s have shown that organizations subject to them employed proportionally more blacks and white women than did comparable non-contractors in selected job categories (managerial, skilled trades, law enforcement, fire fighting, professions, the military), and that these groups’ incomes increased (Beller, 1984; Butler, 1992; Leonard, 1983, 1984a, 1984b, 1984c; Sokoloff, 1987; Taylor and Liss, 1992; US Department of Labor, 1984). Affirmative action also contributed to growth in the number of small businesses owned by black entrepreneurs (Taylor and Liss, 1992).

Affirmative action in employment might be called “hiring by the numbers” because of its focus on increasing the representation of the designated groups through targeted hiring, and to a lesser extent, training and promotion. It is a policy intended to deal directly and expeditiously with the de facto or systemic discrimination that remains embedded in policies and everyday practices in organizations and that reflects the historical legacy of de jure discrimination and exclusion in the USA (Hamilton, 1992). Affirmative action policy represents a commitment to end discrimination as a primary value which is not subordinated to other values.

However, affirmative action was not designed to address the issue of integrating and retaining the racial minorities, women and other groups hired under its requirements. Focusing as it did on numerical representation, affirmative action compliance did not emphasize changing organizational policies, practices and climate in order to ensure that, once hired, members of the designated groups would be full and equal participants in the workplace, enjoying equitable career development opportunities and rewards for their contributions. In fact there is evidence that this has not happened, and that continuing discrimination and harassment - including white male backlash - have contributed to job dissatisfaction and turnover among affirmative action groups (e.g. Miller and Wheeler, 1992; Morrison and Von Glinow, 1990; Thomas and Alderfer, 1989).

A turn towards managing diversity reflects a search by organizational decision makers for an alternative to the contentious and politically unpopular policy of affirmative action, as well as for a way to address its unfinished business - issues of retention, integration and career development. As well, some who claim to speak as the intended beneficiaries of affirmative action, tired of backlash and unwarranted doubts about their qualifications, have sought alternatives to affirmative action (e.g. Carter, 1991).

Employment equity

Employment equity is the response of Canadian policy makers to the persistence of discrimination and disadvantage in employment experienced by women, aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, and racial minorities. Employers covered under the federal Employment Equity Act (1986) and the Federal Contractors Program (1986), both of which were revised in 1995, are required to collect and report data on the representativeness of their workforce, and to make a plan which includes targets for hiring and promotion, and measures to remove discriminatory barriers in employment policies and practices and to accommodate diversity within the workforce. Employers are subject to compliance audits, and the reports of employers covered under the Act are available to the public and to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which has the power to file and adjudicate complaints of systemic discrimination.

For a brief period in 1994-1995, employers under provincial jurisdiction in the province of Ontario were covered by the Employment Equity Act (1993), which was passed by an Ontario government with a New Democratic Party majority and then repealed under the subsequent Conservative government. The Job Quotas Repeal Act (1995) was introduced in the aftermath of a political campaign in Ontario which relied heavily on the incitement of fears and anxieties during a time of high unemployment and extensive corporate downsizing and layoffs. The use of language such as “job quotas” and “reverse discrimination” in the campaign misrepresented the actual requirements of the Employment Equity Act, which required employers to:

  • provide information to employees about employment equity;
  • conduct a census of the workplace based on voluntary self reporting by employees of their membership in the designated groups;
  • conduct a review of the formal and informal policies and practices used to make decisions about all aspects of human resource management in order to identify any that contain systemic barriers;
  • prepare a plan for removing discriminatory barriers and for undertaking measures to accommodate special needs of disadvantaged groups;
  • set goals and timetables for improving the representation of women, racial minorities, aboriginal persons and persons with disabilities over time at all levels of the organization’s hierarchy; and
  • monitor and assess the progress of the equity process, with revision of the equity plan every three years in order to make it as effective as possible.

The Act required several of these steps to be undertaken jointly by employers and unions in unionized establishments, and in all workplaces, it required that employees be consulted about the development and implementation of plans. Neither the Ontario nor the federal Act imposed hiring or other kinds of quotas on employers. Under both Acts, employers were required to set their own goals for improving the representation of disadvantaged groups over time, with appropriate consideration of the usual factors governing the extent and timing of staffing, and in relation to the availability of qualified members of the four groups in relevant labour markets. Although the Ontario Employment Equity Act has been repealed, some of its features were incorporated into the federal Employment Equity Act when it was revised in 1995.

Canada’s employment equity policy has been influenced by the conceptual framework of affirmative action as implemented in the USA; however, it has from its inception set a course different from affirmative action (Abella, 1984). Employment equity is generally viewed in practitioner and policy circles as an organizational change strategy designed to prevent and remedy discrimination and disadvantage by identifying and removing barriers in employment policies and practices and in the culture of the organization, as well as by improving the numerical representation and distribution of the designated groups. The Canadian response to inequality has sought to avoid the controversy and stigma attached to affirmative action, but more important, it is a much broader strategy that is designed not only to improve numerical representation through hiring, but to provide fair employment systems and a supportive organizational culture for women, racial minorities, aboriginal peoples and persons with disabilities (Agócs et al., 1992, ch. 1).

However, employment equity policy has so far shown only limited results in Canada, primarily consisting of increased hiring of white able-bodied women and, to a lesser extent, of racial minority women, in selected job classes (Jain, 1993; Leck and Saunders, 1992). Critics of the disappointing results so far achieved under employment equity have pointed to the 1986 federal law’s weaknesses. It did not require employers to demonstrate employment equity initiatives, but only to submit annual reports showing the numerical representation of the employment equity groups, and it did not give government an effective monitoring and compliance role (Lum, 1995; Poole and Rebick, 1993). The 1986 federal Act has also been criticized for its emphasis on numerical representation; its lack of attention to the need to identify and change discriminatory organizational policies, practices and culture; and its ineffective top-down assumptions about the implementation of employment equity (Agócs et al., 1992). The revised federal Act begins to address some of these criticisms in that it requires employers to demonstrate action to comply with their own equity plans, and it gives a compliance and enforcement role to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The 1995 Act also requires that unions and employees be part of the implementation process. It remains to be seen whether these changes improve progress towards equity. In taking a broad approach involving change in organizational culture and employment policies and practices, as well as numerical representation, employment equity policy potentially offers a framework for working towards equality within specific workplaces even in times of economic recession when it is not possible to achieve large improvements in representation through hiring.

Managing diversity

As one of many interventions in the organizational development (OD) family, managing diversity is primarily concerned with improving interpersonal and inter-group communication and relationships in the workplace. The focus is on interactions between managers and the employees they supervise, among peers, and between employees and customers or clients. Improved “human relations” are expected to result from promoting an increased understanding and acceptance, and at best, appreciation, of those who are “different” from the traditional white male able-bodied employee or manager. Expected benefits of diversity programmes include decreased conflict and stress, enhanced productivity of heterogeneous teams or work groups, and improvements in morale, job satisfaction and retention. Managing diversity seeks these objectives primarily through a programme that promotes awareness of difference, empathy for those who are “different”, and attitude change - often involving efforts to assist employees to identify and confront their stereotypes about persons whose characteristics differ from their own. As is true of other human relations approaches, managing diversity is concerned with changing the attitudes of individuals and perhaps to some degree with attempting to persuade individual employees to change their behaviour, but it does not generally seek to ensure behavioural change by altering organizational structures or processes (e.g. Reece and Brandt, 1993, ch. 15).

As is so often the case with organizational change programmes, there appears to be a large discrepancy between the intervention as proposed in the theoretical literature and in professional human resource management journals, and what actually happens in the workplace under the name of managing diversity. Mighty (1991, p. 67) proposes that “valuing diversity” should be a broad organizational change effort that “involves changing individuals’ attitudes and behaviours, while at the same time changing the organization’s philosophy and culture, and consequently, its structure, policies and procedures”, resulting in greater equity for minorities and women, as well as benefits to organizations. Some research evidence suggests that specialized training can result in the learning of new skills specifically designed to capitalize on the potential synergies of heterogeneous groups (e.g. Maznevski, 1994). Morrison (1992) proposes that managing diversity can complement affirmative action strategies and new employment policies and practices to address the failure of organizations to promote women and racial and ethnic minorities into higher levels of management. Based on a survey of managers in 16 “model” US organizations, Morrison notes the importance of introducing not just one approach to equity, but an array of measures intended to make the organizational climate more supportive, and to ensure that employment policies and practices would provide developmental opportunities, career planning, reduction of work-family conflict, and mentoring for disadvantaged groups. However, there is no evidence to suggest that any of the companies in Morrison’s study actually implemented the model she recommends, or that the representation of women and minorities in senior management had substantially improved as a result of specific measures she discusses.

The typical diversity programme, unfortunately, is not a constellation of measures designed to address a specific issue, or a broad organizational change effort of the kind advocated by Mighty (1991). Reports on practitioners’ activities suggest that diversity programmes are frequently limited to awareness or skillbuilding training (Cox, 1991, p. 40; Mighty, 1991, p. 68; Rossett and Bickham, 1994). Diversity training is usually delivered to volunteer participants by external consultants, or sometimes by internal trainers in larger organizations, using off-the-shelf packages and often working in “diverse” teams. Training sessions are designed to arouse interest but not fundamentally to challenge, question or change organizational routines or power structures. Publishers of training materials are now marketing many diversity-related videos and games such as Diversity Bingo, which is said to be “quick” and “delightful”, and Diversophy: Understanding the Human Race, which offers “gentle guidance” and in a “nonthreatening way” “encourages players to become aware of the traits and customs of different groups and to recognize common misconceptions” (Pfeiffer and Company, n.d., pp. 24-5). The latter game can be played by up to 72 people at one time, and promises to “liven up any meeting, conference, or special event at an average cost of less than $2.00 per participant!” (Pfeiffer and Company, n.d., p. 25).

Diversity programmes are usually voluntary initiatives for employers who have total discretion as to how they will be implemented. Although the decision to implement the training is often made or approved at the top of the organization, the participation of top management appears to be rare. Diversity training is usually targeted to middle managers, first line supervisors, and specialized functions such as customer service, in which improved communication and “human relations” skills are expected to result in bottom line benefits. Blue collar, clerical and technical workers are much less likely to be involved in the training.

The content of diversity training usually includes information on changing demographics, and often about bias, prejudice and stereotypes, but not discrimination. Typically, training sessions provide experiential and self assessment exercises and role playing, and some sessions include briefings on diverse cultures, sometimes by panels of “representatives” of various groups. Some programmes conclude with personal action planning or contracting (Copeland, 1988a; Rossett and Bickham, 1994).

Focusing on individual attitudes and experiences, the training is designed to sensitize employees to diversity in bland and non-confrontational ways, frequently by inviting all participants - including white males - to think of themselves as “diverse” in some respect. R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr, one of the most influential proponents of “managing diversity” in the USA, explained: “I certainly don’t mean to suggest that white males somehow stand outside diversity. White males are as odd and as normal as anyone else” (Thomas, 1990, p. 109). Often the message is that every individual is unique, not a member of a group situated within a structure of power and opportunity, privilege and disadvantage. In a book suggestively titled Beyond Race and Gender, Thomas (1991, p. 167) defines managing diversity as:

a holistic approach to creating a corporate environment that allows all kinds of people to reach their full potential in pursuit of corporate objectives. It is not a prepackaged set of solutions. It is not a programme for addressing discrimination.

A critical perspective on diversity management

Edward Jones, Jr (1992, p. 155) has criticized the corporate retreat from affirmative action into diversity programmes in the USA, noting:

Many black executives have complained about how their companies’ training programmes are ignoring the realities of race despite the fact that the data indicate that it continues to be the most difficult and resistant barrier to success. These executives report that some white executives prefer to limit their focus to issues of sex or on homogenized diversity programmes that downplay or ignore the reality of race. If this continues, diversity could become the basis to eliminate corporate racial progress.

To the extent that it lacks a clear focus on discrimination in employment and the disadvantage it creates, managing diversity blurs the issue of inequality and does not engage questions of how organizational policies, procedures and practices create discriminatory barriers that perpetuate inequality on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity and disability. This implication is clear in the language of diversity training: words such as “racism”, “sexism”, “anti-racism”, “feminism”, and “discrimination” are rarely heard, and instead, trainers speak of “diversity”, “multi-culturalism”, “ethnicity” (e.g. Morrison, 1992, p. 4). “Diversity” is sometimes used as a synonym for “inequality”, or even for “equality”. If the language and conceptual frameworks of affirmative action are pushed aside in the era of managing diversity, so too are references to disadvantaged groups as “victims”, “designated groups” or “target groups”. While this may be a positive development, the result has been a silencing of discourse about discrimination and about the responsibility of organizational decision makers to provide remedies. The focus on managing diversity at the expense of affirmative action and employment equity raises the question of whether we are losing sight of the goals of the movements for gender and racial equality that have been central forces in American and Canadian societies for a generation.

The singling out of “diversity” as an issue, and the implication that it must be “managed”, may communicate the message that diversity - not inequality - is the problem that organizations need to address. The norm is understood to be the traditional white able-bodied male employee or manager, and “diversity” refers to “the others”, whose presence and differences require special understanding and response, including the learning of a new and ever-changing vocabulary. The “others”, in the meantime, require assistance to learn how to fit in. The beneficiaries of many diversity programmes are clearly intended to be white able-bodied males, who are helped through the training to feel more comfortable with those who are “different”, and who are expected to leave the training with some skills and language to assist them in dealing with “the others”. The organization itself is not expected to change, nor are trainees typically accountable to change their behaviour after the training.

In practice, the burden of educating traditional members of the workforce about “difference” once the training is over is likely to fall on the shoulders of women, racial minorities, aboriginal peoples, and persons with disabilities, who are already subject to heightened scrutiny, performance pressures, and expectations that they will “represent” their group in interactions with the traditional workforce. Some diversity training is based on the assumption that women and minorities need to learn “special skills”, such as conflict resolution, assertiveness, and “managing racism”, in order to survive in an organization that will remain fundamentally racist and sexist (Morrison and Von Glinow, 1990, p. 204).

Perhaps because of its silence about or inability to change realities of discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace, managing diversity has been presented in the USA as a palatable alternative to, and substitute for, affirmative action (e.g. Morrison, 1992, p. 4; Thomas, 1991). This claim is misleading because it confuses the purposes of the two strategies. Affirmative action is intended as a response to and remedy for past and continuing discrimination against specific disadvantaged groups. In contrast, the goals of managing diversity are vague, but have to do with changing attitudes and interpersonal behaviours in the direction of greater acceptance by traditional employees of the diversity that has resulted from demographic change, and from the entry of non-traditional employees into the workplace. Thus managing diversity and affirmative action are not substitutes for each other, nor do they lie on a continuum, since they address different issues. Morrison (1992, p. 8) emphasizes that affirmative action measures are still needed, despite:

the perceived need to build distance between a diversity effort and previous affirmative action activities to avoid the stigma attached to the latter. Yet affirmative action is not obsolete because prejudice is not obsolete... It would be short-sighted to abandon affirmative action practices in the hope that integration will now occur naturally.

Diversity programmes of good quality have a place as part of an organizational response to demographic change in the workplace, the labour market, and the client and customer populations. Training that makes employees and managers more aware of the need to examine their own assumptions about others, challenges their stereotypes, and enhances their ability to empathize and to communicate with others from different backgrounds would meet a need in many organizations. However, it is important that there be clarity about what managing diversity is intended to accomplish and about its limitations. This clarity is not easy to attain, since diversity management practices vary widely, their goals often appear nebulous, and results of these programmes are rarely measured and evaluated (Cox, 1991, p. 40; Morrison and Von Glinow, 1990; Rossett and Bickham, 1994). It is not evident what such programmes actually accomplish but it is quite clear what they cannot accomplish. Generally speaking, diversity programmes are directed towards limited kinds of changes in individuals, not towards changing organizational culture or structure. In most instances they do not seriously address issues of inequality in the organization arising from the distribution of power and opportunity; white male privilege remains intact.

Diversity programmes generally do not assist employers or employees to understand better the nature of discrimination and disadvantage, nor do they assist decision makers to identify and remove barriers facing women, racial minorities, aboriginal peoples, or persons with disabilities. Indeed, some diversity programmes do not address issues of disability and accommodation, even though diversity training has the potential to help able-bodied employees and managers to change their attitudes towards employees or customers with disabilities. It might also teach skills useful in working out accommodations of special needs with these employees or customers.

Diversity programmes also tend to neglect other issues surrounding inequality in organizations. These issues include lack of access to employment by workers with disabilities and those of aboriginal ancestry; lack of career opportunities, job loss, and deskilling among women in pink collar ghettos; pay inequality; issues of gender and racial harassment; and inequality affecting employees in unionized jobs. Many diversity programmes appear to target the “easier” issues over which management has unilateral control (although none of these issues are easy to deal with).

Diversity programmes which assume that the traditional white male power structure will continue to be the norm may not succeed in bringing about the attitudinal and behavioural changes they propose to achieve. In an organization in which racism and sexism are entrenched, or in the hands of inexperienced trainers, diversity programmes can have the opposite of their intended effects: they may legitimate stereotypes and create misunderstanding and even conflict among men and women, or persons of varying racial and cultural identities (Kossek and Zonia, 1993). It is hard to see how games and training activities that trivialize issues of racial and gender difference and inequality can result in positive change. In order to clarify their potential uses and pitfalls and identify effective practices, there is a need for research evaluations of the impacts of diversity programmes and for assessment of various ways of implementing them.

If the goal is to change organizations in order to reduce turnover and assist in career advancement for women, minorities, persons of aboriginal ancestry and people with disabilities, there are more effective ways to do this than through diversity training. Structural changes that ensure fairness in employment policies and practices are needed in order to attain these goals. A well-designed and implemented management development programme culminating in appointments of capable women, racial minorities, persons of aboriginal ancestry, and people with disabilities to positions of organizational power will exemplify the organization’s commitment to their full participation in the workplace. Attitudes are most likely to change following behavioural change brought about by a realignment in organizational structures and power relations (Alderfer et al., 1980; Bielby, 1987; see also the rationale for employment equity programmes in Action Travail des Femmes v. CNRail, 1987, 33256-33258).

Nonetheless, Thomas (1990) and others have claimed - in our view inappropriately - that managing diversity is a “higher” level of organizational response than affirmative action. Thomas (1991, p. 28) has suggested that because it emphasizes corporate objectives, “managing diversity”’ is a more advanced concept than “valuing diversity”, which in turn is a step above affirmative action. This argument by Thomas and other US consultants and practitioners has found its way into the work of their Canadian counterparts, who suggest that managing diversity is a higher stage of organizational development than employment equity change. For example, Sullivan (1994a) proposes a continuum of five stages: laissez-faire, human rights compliance, employment equity compliance, employment equity leadership, and workforce diversity. Sullivan views managing diversity as “a broader and more inclusive concept and strategy than employment equity”, and sees “employment equity as a major subset of managing diversity” (Sullivan, 1994b). Other Canadian practitioners have suggested that managing diversity is the same thing as employment equity (e.g. Davidson-Palmer, 1992), or that employment equity is subsumed within diversity management (e.g. Canadian Institute, 1992). To the extent that these misunderstandings find their way into the approaches of Canadian trainers and human resource management consultants, there is confusion about what employment equity actually is and about its objectives, as well as disillusionment with the results of diversity programmes.

Managing diversity is appealing to some employers and human resource managers in Canada for many of the same reasons it is popular in the USA. In Canada there has been a significant backlash against federal and provincial policies on employment equity. This has been expressed in editorials and articles in influential media, as well as in the repeal of Ontario’s employment equity legislation, in political campaigns in other provinces, and in the politics of the Reform party at the federal level. Some opinion polls have suggested that a more negative public perception of demographic change and cultural diversity, and of policies on immigration and multi-culturalism, is gaining strength as the economy has weakened (e.g. Campbell, 1994, p. 1A). There may also be growing resistance against employment equity among some Canadians who oppose all group-based or collective claims, including those raised by Quebec and aboriginal peoples as well as demands for workplace equality by feminist and anti-racism activists and advocates for people with disabilities. In Canada, as in the USA, neoconservative opinion leaders have gained the political strength to undermine or arrest many of the policy advances of recent years in the fields of human rights and equity in the workplace.

However, in Canada as in the USA, many progressive employers, unions and politicians have continued to support legislated affirmative action and employment equity. Like statutory requirements for occupational health and safety, legislated workplace equity creates a level playing field for employers. With mandatory affirmative action or employment equity, progressive employers who are interested in maintaining equity programmes need not fear that they will be at a competitive disadvantage compared with non-equity employers.

However, legislated approaches to workplace equality are clearly more controversial, and incur far more resistance, than managing diversity. Diversity management appears to have appeal as an alternative to employment equity and affirmative action. Employers and human resource practitioners may be hearing this message with greater frequency as increasing numbers of management consultants enter the field, offering attractive off-the-shelf training packages that are relatively inexpensive to deliver and minimally disruptive of organizational routines. Consulting in the area of managing or valuing diversity has mushroomed over the past few years, raising the issue of whether newcomers to this complex field are well equipped to ensure that the expected results occur, and that their clients understand the similarities and distinctions among managing diversity, employment equity, affirmative action, and human rights compliance.

What can diversity management contribute to human resource management?

Potential international consumers of training made in the USA might well be sceptical as to its relevance to the European or Canadian contexts, with their vastly different histories of race relations and immigration, as well as their different legal frameworks surrounding employment and human rights. Popularity of diversity management in the USA is not a good reason to adopt this approach in other countries if it is a poor fit - even if it is touted by the US head office.

To the extent that managing diversity is built on assimilationist assumptions compatible with a vision of society as a melting pot, it is an inappropriate approach in a pluralistic society. It is our view that this is particularly true in Canada, where the metaphor of the mosaic has guided much of public policy for a generation, and the claims of collectivities have both legitimacy and urgency within our institutional and legal framework. To the extent that managing diversity is the US answer to affirmative action, its relevance for Canada is questionable, since employment equity policy is very different from affirmative action. For example, the retention, integration and career development of women and minorities who gained access to employment are part of the unfinished business of affirmative action, whereas the employment equity policy framework provides ways to address these issues. Indeed some US theorists such as Morrison (1992), in advocating diversity programmes, appear to be arguing for a broad approach to organizational change that includes many of the same components as Canada’s employment equity policy contains, although the similarity is not acknowledged.

In deciding whether or not to invest in diversity programmes, human resource managers and employers, as well as participants in these programmes, need to be clear about their own goals, realistic about what diversity programmes can accomplish, and honest in recognizing whom they would benefit. In our view, the most pressing issue in the context of growing diversity in the workplace is to ensure the removal of discriminatory barriers that interfere with the productivity, full participation, equitable rewards, and job satisfaction of women, racial minorities, persons with disabilities, and persons of aboriginal ancestry - all of whom are subjected to persistent discriminatory barriers built into the culture and structure of organizations. Until these barriers are removed and replaced with policies and practices that are fair to all, exhortations to abandon prejudiced attitudes and treat everyone with respect will have a hollow ring. Furthermore, if the issues of numerical representation and access to employment and promotion are not addressed, and disadvantaged groups remain token and powerless minorities in the workplace, there will be very little diversity in the organization to “manage”. A programme whose primary agenda is to increase the comfort level of traditional employees in encounters with people different from themselves is not one that gives priority to equality for disadvantaged groups. Managing diversity is not a substitute for employment equity in Canada, just as it is not a substitute for affirmative action in the USA.

Nevertheless, diversity management has a place in human resource management as a response to specific issues of concern. Properly designed and implemented, managing diversity can address some aspects of organizational culture as part of a broad employment equity strategy designed to bring about change in organizational culture, employment policies and practices, and numerical representation of women, racial minorities, persons with disabilities and aboriginal people. It can convey information, enhance awareness, teach inter-personal and communication skills, contribute to understanding, and build acceptance of the need for legislated equality programmes. Diversity management can also assist employees and managers more effectively to serve a heterogeneous customer and client base, and may prove to be good investments for those who work in service functions. These benefits are most likely to be realized if the diversity programme is relevant to the culture and the legal and policy framework in which it is implemented. Furthermore, effective diversity management would ensure that key stakeholders are involved in the planning and implementation of the diversity programme, and that senior management is committed to the programme and willing to address issues that arise from its implementation.

As is true of any business decision, critical assessment. of organizational objectives and the strategies for attaining them must guide human resource managers and other decision makers who consider an investment in diversity programmes. Within the broader framework of change represented by employment equity and affirmative action, diversity management can be a complementary initiative towards both equality and greater productivity in organizations.

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References and further reading

Abella, R.S. (1984), Equality in Employment: A Royal Commission Report, Ministry of Supply and Services, Ottawa., .

[Manual request] [Infotrieve]

"Action Travail des Femmes v. CN Rail, (1987), 40 DLR (4th) 193 (SCC).", .

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