THE BLOG

Do We Really Need 'Diversity' Offices?

07/07/2014 05:01 pm ET | Updated Sep 06, 2014
  • John Fitzgerald Gates, Ph.D. National Diversity Expert; Principal and Chief Strategist of Criticality Management Consulting; Former Associate Dean of Harvard College
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Having an office to increase workforce diversity has become so trendy that most large companies, universities, and governmental agencies in the U.S. have one. It's true that such offices have been necessary to redress racial and gender inequities in hiring, promotion, and workplace climate emanating from America's long history of workforce discrimination. And, undoubtedly, "diversity offices" have been elemental to the progress we have made toward creating more equitable workplaces over the past twenty-five years. But given their limited focus on human resources issues and placement within companies' human resources divisions, a question looms about whether diversity offices are now redundant and outdated. The answer is a qualified "yes."

The fact is that diversity offices have grown little in focus or impact since they were instituted. They remain fixed in a civil rights motif of representational access, equity, and promotion -- functions that are also administered by companies' human resources and legal departments. In fact, it can be argued that HR and Legal Affairs are more adept at handling workforce issues than are diversity offices because the former are trained to do whereas there is no such requirement of the latter. Human Resource Management is a rigorous, codified field of study and work that covers every aspect of personnel management. Unlike diversity professionals, HR professionals are generally credentialed in their field and bring years of experience to their practice. Diversity management has no universal credential or requirement that diversity professionals have certain qualifications to do their jobs. To get a job in diversity management one needs to "fit in," be "a safe pair of hands," and have some inside connections. Almost anyone can be a diversity practitioner, which devalues the practitioners who are qualified.

But the state of diversity management is not the fault of diversity practitioners. The blame rests with CEOs in both the private and public sectors who have abdicated their leadership role in advancing the field, placed at the helm of diversity offices inexperienced and unknowledgeable practitioners, and demanded too little return on their investment in professional diversity. CEOs have crippled the practice of diversity management by turning a blind eye to the fact that while their companies were evolving, many of their diversity offices stood still. CEOs are implicated in devaluing diversity management by not ensuring that it is integrated into their businesses and contributing to more than workforce concerns. We have heard the phrase, "what gets measured gets done." In the C-Suite, the production of business value is what matters. CEOs have abandoned the real work of diversity management by limiting it to a subset of human resources.

We are all stuck-in seeing diversity within its limited definition as "human difference," rather than as a more holistic expression of "excellence" and "complexity" which is visible in variable forms of differences, similarities and tensions. As a result, the entire field of diversity management is stuck in the same abyss. Hence, the question of whether we really need diversity offices is a relevant one. Limiting the practice of diversity to workforce representation issues diminishes the business value that can be garnered from diversity, marginalizes the practice, and is time-limited. In permitting this to occur, CEOs and we ourselves undermine the significance of the civil rights movement by not expanding diversity beyond the limits of color, gender, sexuality, and creed and placing it in the heart of strategy, leadership, and operations.

So what must we do to fulfill the promise of diversity? First, we must think bigger when it comes to diversity. Diversity is not about difference; it is about excellence. Everyone and everything can strive to be excellent. Every aspect of our businesses, schools, churches, organizations and society can be part of an excellence motif. The issue is unlearning our old mental models in which we see diversity as belittling "otherness," and start seeing it instead as representing the best of everything: organizational learning and innovation, business strategy, resource allocation and alignment, structural integration, product development, and leadership integrity. If Chief Diversity Officers were refashioned as "Chief Diversity Excellence Officers" and diversity offices were excellence offices, their impact, relevance and value would skyrocket. By recalibrating away from difference and investing in "excellence," which includes but is not limited to human representation, we can begin to chip away at the nearly half a trillion dollars per year in lost productivity and innovation that our nation's businesses suffer, and better leverage the $70 billion per year that U.S. companies spend on human resources training.

Doing so will take a leap into the deep waters of commitment in which diversity management is no longer a sidebar, but a fully integrated aspect of business operations. CEOs must retake the reins, recalibrate their understandings and expectations, and restart diversity management as a cohesive piece of their overall business strategy. They must have as their direct report the "Chief Diversity Excellence Officers" and provide the resources necessary to advance and leverage excellence effectively in human, operational and strategic business forms throughout the organization. Chief Diversity Excellence Officers must learn "systems thinking" and "complexity management" to be able to apply diversity management beyond issues of human representation. They must become business leaders rather than bystanders.

So do we really need diversity offices? The answer is a resounding "yes," provided they are refashioned within business strategy rather than human resources. But if these offices remain as they are, they will be moribund in the years to come, subsumed by more professional and agile human resources practitioners and computers, as the redundancy of effort and expense along with uncertain outcomes will make the benefit of diversity management a short-lived value. We must ask not what are the limits of diversity, but what are the opportunities available to us in an expanded understanding and application of it. No longer "window dressing," it is time for diversity management to take center stage.