4 ways to manage diversity at work

Research has revealed the different approaches that managers use to deal with diversity in real life work situations – but which is the most effective?

With 23% of Australian workers having been born overseas, and many companies actively trying to be more inclusive, managing diversity has become a key issue for business.

Studies have repeatedly shown that a diverse workforce can help to increase sales and profits amongst other benefits – but it can also lead to conflict, higher staff turnover and costly complaints.

While much has been written about how to manage diversity in theory, little is known about what works in practice. Now a 'fly on the wall' study by Professor Jörgen Sandberg of UQ Business School and Dr. Jane O'Leary of the Diversity Council Australia has revealed the real life approaches that managers employ and which are most effective.

"Understanding what managers actually do is vital given their critical role in translating organisational policies into day-to-day practice," says Professor Sandberg. "Without this, it is not possible to design initiatives to enable them to be more effective. We set out to discover how they manage diversity in practice, what understandings and activities are involved and how these relate to their performance in managing diversity."

As diversity helps to increase creativity and problem-solving, which are particularly important in knowledge-based professions, they chose to carry out the research within two professional services firms – an employment law practice with around 100 staff which had won HR awards, and a global business advisory firm with over 1,000 staff which had numerous diversity policies in place.

The research team interviewed 32 managers from a wide range of backgrounds and also shadowed them at work. Based on the results, they identified four different approaches - Identity Blind, Assimilation, Inclusive Differentiation, and Equitable Transformation.

Identity Blind
These managers took account of individual differences between employees such as personality or work styles, while turning a 'blind eye' to race or gender. As one explained, 'there are different races but in terms of diversity I see it more in terms of the way … some people are very strong willed and headstrong and others are timid'.

They selected staff on the basis of individual differences in their professional experience, work styles or interests and allowed flexibility to take account of individual differences – such as letting a staff member leave early to attend lectures or watch a Formula One race on TV.

These managers not only focused on individual differences, but also on workers' socio-demographic group and tried to find ways to assimilate people from different groups, such as women or people from non-English speaking backgrounds.

While they used images of women and minority groups in recruitment advertising, and promoted the firm as a 'diversity employer of choice', they viewed such groups as stereotypes with identical tastes, interests and interaction styles who needed help to fit into the 'mainstream'.

Partners talked about helping 'quiet' Asian staff by providing guidance 'culturally on how to behave', 'teaching them about Australia' or 'telling them what is expected and what [is] the normal way of operating in this country'. They also matched female partners with more senior male partners as 'women are not as good at networking and they needed to learn the skills'.

Inclusive differentiation
These managers recognised both individual and group differences, but also saw people as individuals within groups and avoided stereotyping. Age, gender, ethnicity and religion might all be seen as part of the jigsaw puzzle.

One explained: "[We are] finding there can be similar issues depending on the [ethnic] origins of the people…but if you assume everyone coming from the Philippines is going to have this issue, then that's not fair because at the end of the day they're all people as well."

Recruitment and perks were tailed to individuals' particular needs – such as graduated retirement options for an older worker and an overseas placement for a Gen Y employee. They offered multiple inclusive work arrangements such as different types of part-time work, early start and finish times and working from home.

They learned about possible group differences and changed their style where appropriate. One partner told how, after feedback from a Mexican employee, he had learned to express himself more clearly.

Equitable Transformation
These managers considered not only the individual within the group, but also wider society influences. They had transformed their management practice to 'level the playing field' between those from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.

They recognised that existing ways of doing things might de-motivate some people and importantly also benefit some at the expense of others. They challenged colleagues who they felt were stereotyping people or interaction styles that were not inclusive and questioned selection criteria.

One female partner said she had complained that the criteria was 'playing right into the hands of the white Anglo-Saxon male'. Another had raised concerns about work events that excluded anyone who was not 'white male Anglo-Saxon getting drunk down the pub'. They also tried to ensure that mothers and carers working flexibly were not sidelined in their careers on to a 'mommy track'.

These Equitable Transformation managers were consistently identified by colleagues as the most effective, and were the only managers to have won diversity awards. This was followed by Inclusive Differentiation managers, who were next most likely to be identified as effective by colleagues and were also nominated for diversity awards. No Assimilation or Identity Blind managers were identified as effective by colleagues or nominated for diversity awards. According to Professor Sandberg, the four styles can be viewed as a hierarchy with Identity Blind being the least effective at the bottom, and Equitable Transformation at the top.

He adds: "The results of our study depart significantly from what the existing management literature says. We found that managing diversity effectively depends first and foremost on managers' understanding of the subject, rather than whether or not they undertook a particular activity.

"Those with a more comprehensive understanding are more effective because they have greater flexibility in the way they manage diversity, a broader focus and can respond to situations in more varied and specific ways."

Last updated:
27 February 2019