Monday, August 3, 2009

The Diversity Trap

What would you call a workforce that is 74% of one sex with 69% of employees in the higher pay ranges of that same sex? The Oregon Department of Human Services calls it diverse. To them diverse means women and minorities – even when women make up over two thirds of employees, that is diversity. In addition they have goals for hiring a certain number of handicapped people and those specific ethnic groups. That includes a goal to increase skilled craft employees “by 4 women, 1 person of color and 1 person with a disability.” This is affirmative action run amok, a clear sign that “diversity” is simply another name for preferential treatment of favored groups.

In fact, why would any employer, private or public, want a diverse workforce? This takes us back to the means vs. ends question. As I see it, there are two reasons:

a. Fairness

b. A productive workforce.

If fairness is the goal then emphasizing diversity is at best a confusion of means and ends. The fairest thing to do is for employers to just hire the best person for the job, regardless of skin color or number of X chromosomes. That provides a fair chance for all who have the ability and who have made the effort to prepare themselves. If you want is fairness, you should not look at ethnicity or sex at all in the hiring or promotion process. The push for “diversity” is just a way to prefer one group over another.

Having a productive workforce is similar. Employers should hire or promote the best person for the job.

There are some good reasons for seeking diversity – but diversity of the right kind. In most cases that should be a diversity of background and knowledge rather than of ethnicity. Consider an executive committee planning the design of a new product:

If engineers dominate, they will have lots of fun putting in all the latest features, using state of the art technology and maybe some of their own ideas. The product they design will be a wonder of human intelligence. If they are very lucky, it might be manufacturable and customers might actually like it and buy some of them.

If finance people make the decision, they will make sure that only very cost effective components and processes are used. However they know nothing of engineering or marketing so it may be impossible to design or sell. Whatever comes out won't cost much to make, but it may not be what customers want.

If manufacturing dominates the planning, they will make certain that the product is easy to make. That may require elimination of any technology that requires unfamiliar manufacturing methods. It may also require use of more expensive components that are easier to work with. The product will be manufacturable but it may be impossible to sell it at a profit.

If marketing dominates, the design will probably be just what the customer wants. However it may be difficult to manufacture and may also be a copy of 10 similar products already available. Making and selling it at a profit may be impossible.

This is where diversity comes in. That decision-making board needs a diversity of background and knowledge in those who contribute to the decision. Limiting decision-making influence to those of only one background leads to groupthink. Of course that leads to poor decisions.

Now consider what might happen if people with varied backgrounds are placed on that decision-making board. The marketing experts can keep the focus on what the customer wants. Manufacturing can make sure that they can actually make the thing. Finance can look at trade-offs between cost, manufacturing difficulty, and what the customer will be willing to pay. Then engineering can create innovative ways to design the product, possibly even giving the company an advantage in the marketplace.

The purpose of diversity should be to get a wide variety of viewpoints. That takes work on the part of management and frankly it can be a messy process. The leader can't just say, “Go design a replacement for product X.” Instead he has to arbitrate the differences between all the viewpoints. Some people will be upset when their pet ideas are rejected. Some will be reluctant to speak up and, unless the leader draws them out, valuable information may be lost.

To make this work, a manager or leader must be able to listen to all perspectives and put together the best from everybody. He must be able to help people understand that their contributions are valued, even if they didn't make it into the final product. Of course he cannot do that unless he has those diverse people on the team.

A diversity of this kind, properly used, will benefit any organization. Government, business, even home life can be improved by obtaining and openly discussing different viewpoints. However an emphasis on skin color or sex will only skew the process.

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1 comment:

Bobkatt said...

Don't forget if manufacturing dominates the planning, they will probably also resist modernization and mechanization that might eliminate assembly jobs.
I'm reminded every day where I work of my White and Male privilege on a large bulletin board posted by the "Diversity Committee". I am tempted to add at the bottom of the Male privilege poster that I males are also 90% more likely to die in a work related accident than women.