What is Diversity?

Workplace diversity is essentially a human factor issue, focusing on the differences and similarities that people bring to an organization.

Diversity is broadly defined to include aspects beyond those specified in equal opportunity or affirmative action statutes.

It is a workplace culture that actually draws upon the talents of all – old and young, men and women, people of all colours, creeds, sexual orientations, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

As a concept, diversity is considered to be inclusive of everyone. In many ways, diversity initiatives complement non-discrimination compliance programs by creating a workplace environment and organizational culture in which differences are capitalized on to enhance the operation and overall performance of the organisation.

Diversity is about harnessing the advantages of diverse perspectives. This includes learning from others who are different, about dignity and respect for all, and about creating an organizational culture that encourages learning and growth.

For many businesses, it is disappointing and unfortunate to note that diversity efforts have not made the progress that so many had hoped for since South Africa’s transition to a constitutional democracy. Understanding why South African businesses and organizations in general have not made more progress in the field of diversity, is complex. But to optimize the impact of diversity, this enriching practice must be woven directly into the business’ strategies and management systems.

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Earlier Years:

Diversity efforts were driven in the 80’s, and early ’90’s primarily by the need to begin to adapt to the realities of a shrinking talent pool, and legislation which ‘outlawed’ discriminatory HR practices based on colour and gender. For instance ‘Equal Employment Opportunity’ practices focused on a subset of the population, requiring employers to increase the presence of under-represented groups in their workforce.

The scope of diversity work expanded dramatically from 1994 onwards with the promulgation of the South Africa Constitution Act, and from 1998 onwards with the passing of the Employment Equity Act. Employers have been forced (by law) to accelerate the hiring of a more diverse workforce and to remove the barriers to employment progress for previously disadvantaged groups. However, changing the numbers has not been enough; figuring out how to effectively work together is the bigger challenge, and education about differences has been introduced.

Diversity not seen as Priority:

While heeding the law is mandatory, this “extra effort,” which focuses on diversity training and interpersonal learning, is often viewed as an optional extra frequently not tied to the business, and often not as effective as newly ‘affirmed’ leadership intends. While there are a few success stories, there are many cases in which participants either do not know why they are there, or who are unable to apply what they have learned to their workplace responsibilities, because their corporate culture does not reinforce components of the education they receive.

In reality, diversity progress is slow. Women, or blacks lead very few companies. In some cases, diversity is viewed by organisational leaders as not essential to business success.It is shelved as something to which lip service is paid if only to keep in with the tender system to secure lucrative government and municipal contracts.

Competitive Advantage of Diversity:

Most companies have not taken the time to adequately understand how diversity impacts their adaptability and bottom line, and therefore fail to recognise diversity as a competitive advantage, particularly as an employer. Consumer buying patterns are already changing quite dramatically with black spending power beginning to overtake that of whites. Hiring a workforce that mirrors the diversity of its customers can have a powerful impact on understanding the needs of those customers.

In conclusion it’s important to note that diversity not only involves how people perceive themselves, but how they perceive others. Those perceptions affect their interactions. For a wide assortment of employees to function effectively as an organizational team, human resource professionals need to deal effectively with issues such as communication, adaptability and change. Diversity will increase significantly in the coming years. Successful organizations recognize the need for immediate action and are ready and willing to spend resources on managing diversity in the workplace now.