Why Seeking Diversity in the Workplace Is a ‘Primitive’ Concept

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Top Five Reasons You Never Hear Back After Applying for a Job

If you’re diligently striving to create a diverse workplace by focusing on gender parity and a balanced representation of people from different racial, ethnic, religious and social groups, guess what. You’re languishing in the 1990s, and you’re blind to the fact that your approach hasn’t worked in decades past, and it certainly isn’t going to work now.

That was my takeaway from a fascinating discussion with Trevor Wilson, a Canadian global diversity strategist who insists that we need to stop identifying individuals in terms of what group they belong to. Instead, he says, we need to start focusing on those individuals’ unique talents and strengths—that is, their “human equity.” Wilson, who describes himself as biracial—half black, half Indian—has been immersed in the diversity field for two decades, and his outlook has undergone a dramatic transformation since he wrote his first book on the subject 17 years ago. His most recent book, “The Human Equity Advantage: Beyond Diversity to Talent Optimization,” encapsulates that new outlook.

“If we don’t transform this thing, it will fall off the business agenda,” Wilson said. “You can’t keep saying the same thing for 20 years and have no tangible results to show for it, without it falling off and being irrelevant.”

I asked Wilson whether the traditional outlook regarding diversity is helpful or harmful. His response was nothing if not forthright:

It’s primitive. Your president and your attorney general keep telling you guys this, but I don’t know if anybody’s listening. We have to have a more sophisticated conversation than about the color of the skin of guys walking around the organization. .. Your approach is very primitive. I’m not saying it’s irrelevant, the color of what the work force looks like. But it’s only about 10 percent of the conversation. You have to evolve your conversation on this. … I don’t want you to ignore the fact that I’m black and over 50 and whatever, but don’t define me that way. Don’t say, “We need a black baby boomer.” Include that, but understand that I’m that and so much more than that.

Wilson explained that what everyone is ultimately seeking with respect to diversity is what he called “the Martin Luther King experience”—living in a society where people are treated based on the content of their character. Wilson said that was the dream in 1968, and it’s still a dream, because we’re not there yet:

The conversation on diversity has been helpful in getting us beyond where we were in 1968. But it’s not going to get you to that dream. By focusing on this group and this group and this group, which is what diversity has been about for the last 20-plus years, that will not get us to a place where people are treated based on the content of their character. Getting “beyond” diversity doesn’t mean there’s no value in what we’ve done over the past 20 years. It means you don’t want to stop there. You’ve got to keep moving. And we’ve been stuck. What’s happened is there are fiefdoms built up around groups. The African-American constituency is a very powerful constituency in your country; LGBT is getting stronger; women’s groups are getting stronger. And they come to the table with their own [agendas]. It’s very human that I’m going to be more interested in the issues that concern my group.

Wilson referred to what Nelson Mandela called “the hierarchy of inequity” to elaborate:

He would say you can’t choose, you can’t say that the inequity you face as a black male is any [more of a problem] than the inequity she faces as a white female or he faces as a gay male. You have to approach this with what he called “rainbow jurisprudence.” You have to deal with the inequity where you find it. Your inequity as a black male is no worse or no better than his inequity as a white male. One of the biggest criticisms we got after the first book was you can’t view this just for four groups or two groups or 10 groups. You have to view this for everybody in your world of work, including straight, white able-bodied males.

So what about the contention that building a workplace with gender parity and a balanced representation of people from various racial, ethnic, and social groups is good for business? Wilson dismissed the contention altogether:

For every paper that says you make more money by doing that, we’ve got three papers that say, “not so much.” At the very least, it’s cloudy—it’s not clear. The subtitle of my book 17 years ago was, “The business case for equity.” Seventeen years ago, the hope was that if you create a more diverse work environment, you’ll have higher profits and all of the other business results everybody’s looking for. It just has not been proven. So I’m not suggesting to you not to approach if from a business perspective—you absolutely should. But you want to do it with some rigor—take a look at the research in terms of what has been proven, and what hasn’t been proven. There’s no conclusive proof that by having different colors, different genders, etc., you’re going to have a better bottom line.

If you can link it to profitability, productivity, or customer satisfaction—if you can link it to something your leaders are interested in—it’s much more likely to get and stay on the leadership agenda. I absolutely still believe that. I think I have a little bit more license to say this than you do as a white male. If you as a white male were to criticize diversity, it’s likely you would be called racist or sexist or homophobic. I have a little bit more license because I’ve been in the field for 30 years, I can back up what I’m saying with actual research, and I’m a black guy from Canada. But the whole diversity infrastructure will not stand up and salute this message that you’ve got to move beyond [diversity], you’ve got to evolve the conversation.

Wilson went on to explain the concept of human equity this way:

If I go into an organization, and I find all of their high-potential high performers are Chinese women in wheelchairs, a signal will go up where I say, “You know what, guys, you might have missed talent somewhere else, because talent doesn’t always show itself in the form of Chinese women in wheelchairs. If I go into an IT department and all the employees are white males over the age of 45, that same signal will go up. Talent comes in all packages. So my guess would be an organization that’s really dedicated to doing human equity will find talent in other demographics. That’s the hypothesis.

The idea, then, is that by focusing on human equity—individuals rather than groups—we’ll overcome the “diversity fatigue” that has set in throughout organizations in this country:

My hope is that people will embrace human equity just like they embraced diversity as a business issue. [Diversity] is not the goal. The goal is really to find talent. … If you have an organization of 500 people, you have 500 individual people with talent. Your job as a leader is, how do you unleash that talent for the mission of your company? That’s all human equity is about. You can’t do that just for women. You can’t do that just for African-Americans. You have to do it for everybody. Some that you unleash will be women, some will be African-Americans, some will be Hispanic. That’s the theory. And I’ll be able to prove it in 10 years.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Aug 14, 2013 4:46 AM Rob Rob  says:
A few centuries ago, maybe five dozen guys got together and wrote down some ideas about equity…not far from Toronto, actually, just a bit south. One of the things they jotted down was the "human equity" concept. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” They wrapped a few other things around that idea, too. But the main idea was pretty similar to yours at its core: “Human Equity.” “Men Created Equal.” Human = Men : Equity = Equal." Pretty close. Pretty cool. But a wonderful idea. Guess what… It didn’t work. Judging from your book title and your hopes that people will one day embrace human equity, well, folks admittedly haven’t quite swung around to the idea just yet, but perhaps there's hope. They’ve only had, what, 237 years to snuggle up to the expressed idea since it was institutionalized in July of 1776. Folks may be warming up to it. I'm not sure, though. There's evidence to the contrary...even in Canada. But maybe you can do in ten years what the rest of the world hasn't been able to embrace in its entire history. Lot's of luck with that one, Trevor. I wish you well. Reply
Aug 19, 2013 5:41 AM Mohamed Yaffa Mohamed Yaffa  says:
I believe the discusson sidelines the human comfort with sameness and fear of difference, which is why in the first place diversity came into being. It also implies that stereotypes have no place. Let me explain: People think that certain groups of people have certain abilities, or less-abilities, and this belief leads them to admit or dismiss others. I will not say we must hire based on race, color, ethnicity, religion or gender, but the barriers to equity cannot be broken without these consideration being threaded in along with qualification. Reply
Aug 26, 2013 8:05 AM Wakjob Wakjob  says:
If all men were created equal then Eskimos should be running Toyota and white midgets should dominate the NBA. Get over it. Some people are just better at some things than others. Pushing diversity is a sure way to kill any economy. Reply
Jun 21, 2014 10:22 AM Workplace Diversity Workplace Diversity  says:
Thank you for sharing this very informative information. When employees work together, it creates unity, raises productivity and improves the bottom line. In order to achieve these results, organizations need to develop a more diversity-friendly culture. It’s important for employers to provide employees with the tools needed through training to understands, accept, and value differences of their coworkers. Reply

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