Diversity in the Workforce Research Paper

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Diversity in the workplace has been one of the more active fields of study in human resources over the past several years. There are essentially two components to the discussion. The first is the business case for diversity, and the second is the ethical case. The ethical case is arguably the older of the two points of discussion, having its roots in affirmative action, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the civil rights movement in general. The business case followed, and one might say that it did so because the argument for diversity needed to be presented in financial terms in order to improve the rate at which companies paid attention to the issue. This paper goes back and looks at both the history and the present of diversity in the workplace as an ethical issue, both for individuals and society. The initial phase of the paper will provide an overview of the discussion to this point, and the latter phase of the paper will examine the arguments against different ethical frameworks.

Diversity in the Workplace as an Ethical Issue

Prior to 1964, civil rights advocates had little success with the judicial branch. There had been efforts to end workplace discrimination since the early 1940s from a variety of federal politicians, but none of them really went anywhere. By 1960, amid a growing civil rights movement and notable civil disobedience and violence, both political parties promised to bring about civil rights legislation and in 1964 this culminated in the Civil Rights Act (Vaas, 1965). Title VII of the Act outlined prohibitions on discrimination in the workplace. Over the coming two decades, further laws built upon these prohibitions, outlawing discrimination on a wide variety of bases. The issue of whether people should be excluded from the workplace was no longer an ethical issue, but a legal one.

The next step was to progress from exclusion to inclusion in the way that the issue was framed. Inclusion was initially an ethical issue, built on the civil rights movement. Whereas it was easy to argue against excluding people from the workplace, it was necessary to follow up with an argument for inclusion. It was evident that many while many individuals could no longer be discriminated against on the basis of their gender, race or religion, many such minority individuals were underqualified and that hurt their job prospects. Their backgrounds had limited their access to education and contacts, and this was something that would hold them back economically. The concept of affirmative action evolved in order to provide a remedy. Affirmative action was used in both employment at the federal level and in education at publicly-funded schools to provide underprivileged groups with greater access to opportunity, as a response to a historic lack of opportunity for many groups.

Affirmative action was, therefore, strictly an ethical issue. The objective was to create better opportunity for minorities in the workplace. When cases like Regent of the University of California v Bakke challenged affirmative action policies in university admissions, they faded a bit in hiring, which placed more emphasis on the ethical and business arguments for inclusion rather than relying on the law alone. Arguments range from greater societal benefits to greater benefits for the firm itself, in each case arguing that the firm, individuals and the nation will all be better off with greater workplace diversity.

This argument is rooted in both nature and economics, let alone ethics. Biodiversity creates strength in nature, with a greater range of skills and knowledge being applied to survival. In economics, diversification is a way to reduce risk, and maximizing access to talent is a means of improving economic performance -- in a fully efficient economy everyone would work to his or her maximum ability.

The ethical case is more rooted in historical injustice. In a white, patriarchal society, most people were excluded from opportunity. This created a situation where people were impoverished or dependent, and once in that position were perpetually at a disadvantage. This was naturally viewed as injustice, and that it would be better for society of people were no longer subject to this oppression. While the laws of the land forbid such oppression, diversity in the workplace remains an ethical issue because historic oppression still manifests itself in the
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starting point for many Americans. People from impoverished communities in particular have less access to quality education -- especially given the costs involved in college education -- and the result is a perpetual cycle of poverty. The right thing to do, therefore, is to eliminate this perpetual state of poverty through means of providing greater opportunity.

Businesses are specifically targeted because they provide people with economic opportunity (i.e. jobs). Further, many businesses have ingrained cultures and systems that might still retain elements of the oppressive past. Allison (1999) studied organizational barriers to diversity in the workplace and found that there remains discontinuity between organizational policy and practice with respect to workplace diversity. Fine, Johnson and Ryan (1990) further noted that different groups of employees tend to frame their organizational experiences differently, which raises the question about the ethics of imposing diversity on an organization. What cultural frame of reference is used to determine diversity policies? Is that the appropriate frame of reference for all disadvantaged groups?

Furthermore, promoting diversity in the workplace has a strong ethical case in light of findings that argue that the legal system has little interest in pursuing Title VII cases. Schultz (1990) argues that the apparent lack of judicial interest in Title VII is rooted in systemic sexism, an interesting theory, but one that highlights the importance of all companies in viewing diversity as an ethical issue, and not just a legal issue. There is no legal case for inclusion, only against exclusion. This means that the case for inclusion is almost strictly an ethical or business case.

Changing Mindsets

There are two important outcomes to viewing workplace diversity as an ethical issue. The first is to bring about more equitable starting positions and therefore more equitable outcomes -- essentially a consequentialist argument. The other is to help change mindsets, structures, systems and organizational cultures. This change in perceptions is another key ethical outcome for diversity policies, because it removes one of the long-term systemic barriers to opportunity for many Americans. Kalev, Kelly and Dobbin (2006) argue that there have been positive outcomes from all different types of employment equity programs. When companies take ownership of managerial diversity, the outcomes are almost always positive with respect to increasing the share of white women, black women and black men in management. Organizations that established training programs for diversity, networking opportunities for female and minority employees and mentoring programs also saw increases in workplace diversity. There is no evidence that these efforts have decreased organizational effectiveness.

There is also the issue of stereotypes. Racism and stereotyping lie at the heart of all lack of opportunity equality that diversity programs seek to overcome. Arguably, the economic argument is one of the means that is used to attempt to overcome any lingering racism or stereotyping among managers. Coate and Loury (1993) argue that the long-term effectiveness of affirmative action and employee diversity policies is dependent on the ability of those policies to change perceptions. The authors find that affirmative action in particular is ineffective at changing perceptions. Employers who previously felt that certain groups were less productive were unlikely to have changed those beliefs even after the implementation of an affirmative action program. This can point to two issues. The first is that racism and sexism are very difficult, once a person has those beliefs, to eliminate. They linger insidiously, and have an emotional, irrational basis. Thus, even direct evidence that points to the wrongness of those beliefs is unlikely to change those beliefs. The second thing to note here is that it also means that the case for diversity has to be made on the basis of something other than affirmative action arguments in order to be effective.

The case for diversity has therefore frequently been made as a business case. The ethics of diversity to individuals is assumed, even for those who may find themselves Bakke-d out of a job -- all they need to do is make themselves more competitive, which for a white male is presumably easier to do than for others. Now, few ethical theories would argue that an action should provide superior outcomes to all individuals, especially where all individuals have some free will and control over their own circumstances. Indeed, the point of discrimination laws and diversity is that people should not be punished for traits over which they have no control, and says nothing about traits over which people do have control. Thus, the business case dovetails with the ethical case for diversity. The argument is that diversity delivers better outcomes for all, and this is a classic consequentialist argument.

Ely and Thomas (2001) noted that of the three perspectives that inform the way in…

Sources Used in Documents:


Alexander, L. & Moore, M. (2012). Deontological ethics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved January 20, 2014 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/

Allison, M. (1999) Organizational barriers to diversity in the workplace. Journal of Leisure Research. Vol. 31 (1) 78-101.

Coate, S. & Loury, G. (1993). Will affirmative action policies eliminate negative stereotypes? The American Economic Review. Vol. 83 (5) 1220-1240.

Ely, R. & Thomas, D. (2001). Cultural diversity at work: The effects of diversity perspectives on work group processes and outcomes. Administrative Science Quarterly. Vol. 46 (2) 229-273.

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