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The true meaning of diversity

first_imgRelated posts:No related photos. Diversity is fashionable. But a new package of equal opportunity laws willtest how far employers are prepared to go. Stephen Overell explains the newbuzz wordWorking life has come a long way since William Whyte’s 1956 classic TheOrganisation Man. Rather than corporations shoehorning people into blandconformity, it is hard to pick up a newspaper or attend a conference withoutsomeone extolling the value of diversity, how employers must bend overbackwards to accommodate individual difference, and aim to encourage everyoneto fulfil their potential whatever their race, gender, sexuality or creed. ‘Equality’ has a dated, anti-competitive kind of ring to it; ‘diversity’ issomething businesses can outdo each other on. Diversity is the new conformity. “An open, objective and fair organisation is not one that downplays orelevates group differences, but one in which difference can thrive,” wroteRajvinder Kandola and Johanna Fullerton in a paper in 19981. Language of diversity The language of diversity is now so thoroughly orthodox that not being infavour of it is like not being in favour of smiling. Good. And yet governmentsshow no inclination to take the sentiments on trust – any more than in the dayswhen employers were disputing the need for the Equal Pay Act of 1970, the SexDiscrimination Act of 1975, or the Race Relations Act of 1976. Very soon, three new aspects of difference will be granted the protection ofthe law. By the end of 2003, Britain – and the other EU states that don’talready have it – will have legislation banning discrimination on the groundsof sexual orientation and religion; and by 2006 on the grounds of age2.Evidently, business endorsement of diversity does not ensure minimum standardsof social justice in ministers’ mind. Irritating as this may be for HR departments, it is hard not to havesympathy for the politicians. Diversity, so often presented as “the nextevolutionary step” for equality policy, can often sound like hot air;there is an abundance of evidence that exclusion persists as a group phenomenonin employment – something that the hierophants of diversity sometimes appear toforget. Sexuality is a good example. Approximately 44 per cent of gay and lesbianemployees have suffered discrimination at work, such as harassment3. Employersare rather like the patient wrongly diagnosing his own good health. Which iswhy more laws on equality are likely to help give substance to many of the moregassy proclamations on diversity. If employers mean what they say about valuing difference, most of TowardsDiversity and Equality, the Department of Trade and Industry’s consultationdocument on how to implement the European Employment and Race Directives4(closes 29 March 2002) into UK law, will be non-contentious. First, the case for an overall equality commission, superseding the threeexisting bodies and bearing responsibility for guidance across the wholeequality agenda, now looks overwhelming. In Northern Ireland, one EqualityCommission has existed since 1 October 1999. The US has the Equal OpportunityEmployment Commission, which covers multiple different forms of discrimination.Second, protection against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientationis practical common sense. France, the Netherlands, Ireland and the US have hadequality laws covering homosexuality for some time. Defining religion Third, parity for different religions is also sensible in principle,although some bizarre possibilities could emerge. What, for example,constitutes a religion? Time off for pagan observance could be on the way. These are the small issues. The contentious bit for employers is whathappens on age discrimination; hence the longer timetable. There is general agreement that the skills of elderly workers are oftensquandered and that stereotypes about what people can achieve at differentstages of their lives are damaging; general agreement that the government’sCode of Practice on age has failed. Gerontophobia has never been more alive.But if the new law is going to serve the interests of diversity, it means morethan deleting “young” and “hungry” from adverts. The question of mandatory retirement ages is central. The CBI favours retention.Yet the case for scrapping them is surely far stronger. In an age when peopleare healthier and living longer than they once were, retiring people en massewhen they reach a certain age seems wrong; they should have the liberty to workfor as long as they wish to and for employers to use their skills. This wouldmean a dramatic increase in flexibility; employers and employees would have toagree end-dates; succession planning, pensions and careers would have to berethought. Yet the notion of a retirement age is incompatible with valuingdifference in the 21st century. Nationwide, B&Q and Marks & Spencer arein favour of putting it out to grass. Credit where credit’s due The age question is also intimately bound up with reward. Employers chooseto reward loyalty. Yet loyalty is not the same as turning up for work year in,year out. If the two cannot be clearly distinguished, reward strategies – andredundancy policies – could be indirectly discriminatory against young people.Those who stay in jobs for a long time are least likely to be loyal and mostlikely to be dissatisfied5. The time is ripe for clear thinking on what theproper relationship between age and commitment should be. Outlawing age discrimination is unlikely to be a small matter in financialterms. In the US, which has had an age law for several years, a fifth of alldiscrimination claims are based on age. Between 1988 and 1995, people whosuccessfully sued for age discrimination were awarded an average of $219,000(£155,150) compared to $147,799 for race and $106,728 for sex discrimination6. More equality laws will spook some people: discrimination claims went up by21 per cent in the UK last year7. But like it or not, it will probably be goodfor diversity. A greater emphasis on diversity and flexibility is the onlyrealistic response to the prospect of an expanded equality agenda. Ifcelebrating difference means more than hot air, a radical shake-up on agediscrimination is the only way forward. References 1. Diversity in Action: Managing the Mosaic, R Kandola and J Fullerton, IPD,1998 2. Implementing the Equality and Race Directives, Equal OpportunitiesReview, Issue 101, 2002, IRS; see www.xperthr.co.uk3. Straight Up! Why the Law Should Protect Lesbian and Gay Workers, TUC,2000 4. Towards Equality and Diversity, DTI, 2001 5. Loyalty Rules, F Reichheld, Harvard Business Review, 2001 6. Employers Forum on Age: www.efa.org.uk7. Acas, press release, 9.9.2001 Join the Xperts take a free trialBy calling 01483 257775 or e-mail: [email protected] viewpoint is produced by XpertHR, a  web-based information service bringing together leading informationproviders: IRS, Butterworths Tolley and Personnel Today. It features a newButterworths Tolley employment law reference manual, a research database andguidance from 13 specialist IRS journals, including IRS Employment Review. Previous Article Next Article The true meaning of diversityOn 12 Feb 2002 in Personnel Today Comments are closed. last_img read more