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Understanding Diversity

Diversity is an often misunderstood subject. Here we offer in-depth information and resources you can use to deepen your understanding of diversity and how to implement a plan for your organization. Topics you'll find in the following article include:


Diversity is a term covering a broad range of issues and activities that evolved from the legal and social base of overcoming racial/ethnic discrimination. Today, however, thinking of diversity simply in terms of underrepresented, or minority, racial/ethnic groups limits individual and group potential, and creates tensions and divisiveness. Therefore, diversity has come to be a term for a broad, systemic approach addressing ongoing discrimination, but more importantly, the major demographic and technological changes that have occurred in the last several decades.

The U.S. Census Bureau chart below depicts the growth of the U.S. population by racial/ethnic category from 2000 to 2030. Accountability is a mutual process: we must engage in it together for its effect to be felt in our organizations. Therefore, you are invited and encouraged to use this web site to exchange real-life practices and explore ideas in pursuit of the ways accountability can make our organizations more effective.

The chart shows that the African American, Asian American/Pacific Islander, Native American/American Indian, and Latino/Hispanic populations are projected to increase through 2030, while White Americans growth rate declines. A snapshot of the impact of these demographic changes forecasts the majority of new workforce entrants as women of all racial/ethnic backgrounds, men and women of racial/ethnic minority groups and new immigrants. While we generally conceptualize the workforce as people in factories and large corporations, it also includes people in community organizations (including religious institutions), local government agencies (such as police and parks), the Federal Government, K-12 schools and colleges and universities (whether public or private) and small businesses (from storefronts and home offices to mall boutiques and neighborhood restaurants, from sole proprietors to cottage industries). This means that change is evident everywhere we shop, eat, study, worship and play. It is apparent in the way we organize and govern ourselves, the way we do business, and the way we view ourselves in the media and in day-to-day relations.

As the last century came to close, many people in the U.S.A. focused on one projection for 2055-2060: i.e., that people of today's racial/ethnic minority populations would surpass the population of U.S. Whites. Nevertheless, the people who make up these populations (African Americans, Latinos/Hispanics, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders, and Native American/American Indians) are still underrepresented in leadership and decision-making positions, as well as in pipelines that lead to such positions and economic prosperity.

In addition to the demographic changes, there are other significant societal changes related to diversity. For example, technological advances have brought the cell phone and computerized email into common societal usage. This has drastically liberated people from site-based communication, such that more people work independently and undertake multiple part-time work projects. Along with these changes have come related demands for, and changes to, access to health care plans, portable benefits, output measurements, and concepts such as the workday and a living wage.

The technological revolution, along with a shift from a national perspective from affirmative action to diversity, has led to shifts in corporate and government policies. Companies and agencies not only address the employment needs of underrepresented racial/ethnic minority populations, but also their participation in the organizations they work for and the benefit to the organization of representing their interests inside, and outside, of the company or agency. For example, the diversity program of Ford Motor Company develops and supports dealerships owned by African Americans, thereby addressing both the employment needs of this underrepresented group, as well as their buying power as consumers.

In fact, most companies and agencies today understand that diversity is essential to their profession. The demographic data and projections have made it clear that U.S. Whites will be, and are already in many metropolitan areas, sharing their communities and lives with African Americans, Latinos/Hispanics, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders, and Native American/American Indians, and in many communities Whites are fast becoming the minority population. According to the Business Women's Network WOW Facts 2002, "There was a time when corporations saved money through compliance with EEO and other legal concerns. Now it makes money for them. Companies that embrace diversity incur increased shareholder value, a more dynamic corporate culture, more customer and worker loyalty, and a higher quality brand in the marketplace."

Equally important in this transition are the communication technologies that have brought products and services into communities and homes never before visited by the human representatives of corporations. Because communication is multi-tiered, the culture and predilections of the African Americans, Latinos/Hispanics, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders, and Native American/American Indians also influenced corporate and governmental thinking and practices, and brought people closer together at the same time. Moreover, the miniaturization and speed of new communication technologies has led to very rapid changes everywhere and made it possible to easily reach people across vast distances. Thus the term "global village" emerged to describe the new state of societal relations. An example of this combined demographic and technological change can be found in the National Basketball Association. At the end of the 2001-02 season, there were 51 international players representing 30 countries in the NBA from Canada to geographic locations as remote from the U.S. as Slovenia and Senegal.

Another aspect of this change is evident in the scope of diversity issues. Building on a legal and social basis of equality, businesses and agencies have recognized the existence and value of other consumer populations, such as Gays and Lesbians, non-traditional family groups (such as blended families, cross-racial adoptive families, unrelated individuals in a family group), single head-of-household families, individuals and families where English is not the primary language, and people with disabilities. With this realization has come another shift in thinking about diversity. The additive approach is no longer operative: that is, adding new programs to address the needs of each underrepresented population group is inefficient and divisive. What is called for is an approach that manages the mix of all the groups, including Whites.


As the leader of an organization, once you have decided to launch a diversity initiative, you need to know what to do next. There are basically three major steps: (1) an organizational assessment; (2) the development of an organization-wide strategic plan; and (3) the implementation and monitoring of that plan.

(1) Assessment??????????? [ Back to Top ]

The purpose of the assessment is to understand how to tailor your strategic plan and to establish a baseline for where the organization is at the start of the diversity initiative. A useful assessment usually involves a combination of methodologies:

  • Employee and member satisfaction surveys (Be sure to disaggregate by race/ethnicity, gender, and other appropriate measures for the organization. For example, the American Association of Retired People would want to know a member's age bracket.)
  • One-on-one interviews or focus groups with employees and members, as well as with governing board members and other relevant stakeholders to gather additional data on their experience of the organization.
  • Demographic data on the workforce and constituents or clients. Who are they? What are their interests? What are their key identity-group characteristics: Are they predominantly female or male? What's the dominant age bracket? What is their racial/ethnic background? Do they live in predominantly urban, suburban or rural settings? How are they distinguished from other organizational memberships?
  • Review of key documents (especially the mission and goals statement and budget) and practices (e.g., recruitment and hiring of new employees, recruitment of members, development of employees and opportunities for leadership by employees and members, as well as recognition of achievement and promotion for both groups).
  • Analysis and discussion of information from the above listed sources to understand where problems tend to arise and why, how the organizational culture is described, if there is organizational alignment between the mission and goals and actual practice, how the organizational climate is experienced by employee and member/client subgroups, and if the organization nurtures the development of all employees/members.

(2) Strategic Plan for Diversity??????????? [ Back to Top ]

After the assessment activities have been accomplished, the leadership needs to communicate the importance of diversity to the organization's mission and next phase of diversity initiative development, stressing those areas where the organization needs to focus its attention. For instance, these 5 corporations chose to focus on recruitment and retention of underrepresented racial/ethnic people as the primary means of creating and sustaining a diverse workforce: JPMorgan-Chase, Procter & Gamble, Pitney Bowes, Verizon, and FleetBoston.

On the other hand, Johnson & Johnson built on its value of respect for customers and employees to enhance and expand a nurturing corporate environment for all people. (See

Each major organizational unit (e.g., office, department, service center, etc.) needs to review its purpose and identify ways that diversity is relevant to that purpose. Then the unit needs to determine how it can help meet the needs established by the assessment process in relation to its purpose. The results of this process become the unit goals and strategies, which are complied into the larger organizational strategic plan. It is vitally important to the development of the strategic plan that key stakeholders be involved in the determination of goals and strategies. (Who's at the table?)

(3) Plan Implementation and Monitoring??????????? [ Back to Top ]

Implementing the plan is a fairly straightforward endeavor. A recruitment campaign or a mentoring program is designed and reviewed, community meetings are held, and new policies are written. This is the time when the objectives, strategies and action steps became part of the organizational strategic plan are carried out. However, monitoring the progress and impact of these actions and events requires careful attention to accomplishments and process. Paying attention to process is often more difficult than paying attention to progress because organizations are conditioned to measure "what, when, and where" and but not "how" and "why." When process is monitored, then the organization has opportunities to change direction, refine an objective, or make other needed adjustments to ensure success in reaching the goal.

The tendency of most organizations and people is to highlight the successes and downplay what are considered failures. By monitoring the process, failures are avoided because awareness of problems surfaces early in the enfoldment of actions, thereby allowing for adjustments, or mid-course corrections, in a timely fashion.

Many organizations set up Diversity Councils or Steering Committees to help monitor progress and process. Some of the questions to consider in setting up a Diversity Council include the following: How do people arrive at the table? Are they invited in time to plan to attend? Or is their inclusion an after-thought? If so, what does that say about the value placed on their participation? How do we communicate beyond the table and take in feedback? Are we consistent? Do these issues contribute to a misalignment between stated goal and practice? A key pitfall here lies in evaluating how a particular program has done rather than measuring how well the organization is progressing toward the original goal. (For an example of a diversity council in action, see:

BENCHMARKS AND BEST PRACTICES??????????? [ Back to Top ]

A benchmark is an indicator that your organization is moving in the right direction for the goal or objective it established. Sometimes the benchmark can be the comparison of your organization or business with others in your industry. For instance, the Fortune 500 companies look to each other to learn how they stand in certain issues. Nearly all of them, for example, have Diversity Statements, Plans, and Councils. Colleges and universities do the same thing. The "Ivy League" schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth College, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, Brown University, Columbia University, Stanford University, MIT) also compare themselves against each other meeting and setting benchmarks for recruitment of top-ranked students from underrepresented racial/ethnic populations, curricula that addresses diversity issues, ethnic/women/disability studies courses, and so forth. Charitable organizations are less competitive in this area but two common benchmarks are having some type of initiative on diversity and having people on staff above the clerical level who are representative of racial/ethnic and gender diversity. (For more about benchmarks, see the American Society of Newspapers Editors statement on diversity benchmarks:, and the benchmark approach of the American Society on Aging:

Best practices are those activities that utilize a positive approach to achieve desired results. The United Nations Expert Group Meeting on Managing Diversity in the Civil Service, held in 2001, stated that its purpose in identifying best practices is to "highlight successful models that can be reviewed and adapted in whole or part by public service organizations." (See The report also noted that "diversity efforts in the workplace facilitate the exchange of new perspectives, improve problem solving, be inviting different ideas, and create a respectful, accepting work environment, all of which make good business sense."
In health care, one successful model is the use of bilingual interpreter services (see In law best practices involve making firms aware of the need to address the dearth of lawyers from underrepresented groups (see

The National Academy of Engineering offers the benefit of it's thinking on best practices drawn from a national symposium in 2001 on that topic:

For best practices in building bridges across racial/ethnic divides, see the work of Network of Alliances Bridging Race and Ethnicity (NABRE) at:

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has also studied best practices in diversity and its findings are posted at

Another government web site that offers a perspective on best practices is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at:

To see institutional cases on diversity in higher education, scroll through some of the member institutions of AAC&U (Association of American Colleges & Universities) as posted on the Diversity Web at:

Finally, one of the overall best documents on best practices in diversity was written by Dr. Herbert Z. Wong and presented to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1999 (see It offers 13 specific recommendations for diversity initiatives and 13 strategies for designing a diversity initiative drawn from his research and practice.


U.S. Census Bureau, demographic profiles:

Business Women's Network; identified as the premier research resource on women and minorities in business, culture, government, education, and other areas. The BWN publication WOW Facts 2002 is nearly 800 pages worth of factual information cover 81 related topic areas:

Diversity Inc., an online trade publication for diversity, with managerial-level information on the business benefits of diversity; published every business day and is available to subscribers but news briefs are free:

Best Practices in Diversity Management, a joint publication of NASPE (National Association of State Personnel Executives) and IPMA (International Personnel Management Association):

Diversity Rx, is an online publication promoting language and cultural competence to improve the quality of health care for minority, immigrant, and ethnically diverse communities; supported by The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL),
Resources for Cross Cultural Health Care (RCCHC), and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation of Menlo Park, CA.:

DiversityWeb is a comprehensive online resource for educators to connect, amplify and multiply campus diversity efforts; it is a joint effort of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the University of Maryland, funded by the Ford Foundation:

Diversity Works, a peer education program for young people:

Best Practices in Diversity Strategies and Initiatives, by Herbert Z. Wong:

Standards, Practices and Ethics Pledge, a guide to ethical practice of diversity, published online by Diversity Training University International:

On the Path Toward Diversity, a publication of the National Assembly Task Force on Diversity, 2002:

Diversity Leadership Forum, a professional association for practitioners with a website that presents multiple views on current diversity issues:

Acknowledgments ??????????? [ Back to Top ]

We acknowledge, with special appreciation, Sharon Parker (Executive Diversity Consultants) for writing on the issue of "Diversity," providing us with a context and the "how to."


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