In corporate America, a common mission, vision, and purpose in thought and action across all levels of an organization is of the utmost importance to bottom line success, but at the same time, so is the celebration, validation, and respect of each individual and the unique attributes he or she brings to the table. Effectively combining these two fundamental areas requires diligence, understanding, and trust from all parties, and one way organizations are attempting to bridge the gap is through diversity and inclusion initiatives. But before an organization can make true progress in this regard, people across all levels of the organization must understand and believe in the company’s definitions of diversity and inclusion.
The diversity and inclusion (D&I) field has experienced exponential growth over the past decade. Fueled by tremendous demographic, economic, political and social realities, and marketplace demand, more and more organizations are recognizing that their future success is inextricably tied to their ability to tap into this new workforce and customer base.
While most companies today recognize the critical importance of diversity and inclusion to their competitiveness, there are various stages of evolution to diversity and inclusion work. Therefore, it is important to understand the history of D&I work in the United States, in order to articulate what D&I and cultural competence mean in the present day and in the future for organizational success.
The stages of diversity and inclusion work within organizations often reflect this continuum, from a focus on legal requirements and compliance to fully embedding diversity and inclusion within core business strategies and practices.
The Civil Rights era focused on formally addressing the historic discrimination that had legally denied minorities full rights of citizenship. Laws were designed to ensure equal treatment to women and racial minorities by protecting people from discrimination in education, employment, housing, and other opportunities based on race, color, national origin, religion, or gender. The laws, primarily Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, were created to level the playing field for all. Additional laws were enacted in subsequent years to expand civil rights protections—Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title I and Title V of the American Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
Affirmative Action began in the 1970s as a strategy to recruit and hire a more diverse workforce. Focused primarily on representation, Affirmative Action policies were intended to address past discrimination by giving preferential treatment to specified underrepresented groups in the workplace. The objective was to make the employer’s workforce more representative of the general population in its geographic area. There are strong opinions both for and against Affirmative Action. Those against Affirmative Action often argue that such policies result in reverse discrimination and in hiring unqualified and under qualified candidates. Proponents, on the other hand, often argue diverse candidates will not have equal access to opportunities unless organizations mandate their recruitment.
Whatever one’s opinion about Affirmative Action, organizations at this stage on the D&I continuum will have only limited success in efforts to gain competitive advantage through a more diverse workforce. A more diverse employee base does not automatically provide an environment where individual employees are encouraged to contribute their full talents toward organizational success nor does it ensure that diversity and inclusion will be represented at all levels of the organization. To move beyond a focus on representation, Affirmative Action strategies will need to be supported by conscious efforts to create inclusive environments where diverse perspectives are heard and acted on.