Diversity Climate: How To Maximize The Positive Effects Of Workforce Diversity

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Business organizations have intentionally diversified their workforce across genders, races, and ethnicities, either in response to growing legal pressures since the 1960s or simply because they have realized that diversity is good for business.

For some, diversity fosters innovation, creativity, and problem solving and a more diversified clientele. For others, it can be a source of tension, conflict within teams, or interpersonal difficulties. In times of economic and financial crisis, such tensions can be exacerbated.

Research has logically focused on how to create the best conditions to reap the full benefits from workforce diversity.  Diversity climate – defined as the shared perceptions of support for diversity among the workforce – has been identified as playing a predominant role. The underlying logic is that benefits resulting from workforce diversity occur when employees perceive a ‘pro-diversity’ climate in their organization. When there is no such perception, the benefits that might have been derived from workforce diversity are simply lost.

Unfortunately, diversity climate research has given birth to a wealth of inconsistent conceptual definitions and a variety of incompatible ways to measure it, while too little attention has been paid to the validity of the developed measures.

Our systematic review of the literature on diversity climate recently published in European Management Review addresses this issue and develops a robust definition. Our method is detailed in our full paper in the European Management Review’s Special Issue on “international perspectives on securing human and social rights and diversity gains at work in the era of global economic crisis and austerity.”

Deconstructing Diversity Climate

Diversity climate: what level of analysis?

We first analyzed the various levels of analysis used in past research. We highlight two periods with distinct prevalent levels of analysis. From the early 1990s until the mid-2000s, scholars were almost exclusively focused on the individual level, attempting to identify the individual outcomes of an individual pro-diversity climate perception, such as improved well-being, or improved commitment towards the organization. The second period, from the mid-2000s until now, is characterized by the emergence of an approach focusing on outcomes for organizations rather than for individuals.

Very few studies have adopted a multi-level approach that combines the individual and the organizational levels. This ought to change in the future with more emphasis placed on organizational-level and multi-level studies.

Societal and organizational context of most diversity climate research: predominantly Anglo-Saxon

Most publications are centered on Anglo-Saxon countries. For instance, a number of authors have studied diversity from a White/Black/Hispanic perspective relevant to the USA but not to other countries.

This calls for more research undertaken in non-Anglo countries. Furthermore, we could not find any study that attempted to replicate results obtained in a given country to another one. This calls for more replication research.

Diversity climate conceptualization: a blurry multidimensional concept

A systematic analysis of existing conceptual definitions was conducted. The results revealed two salient areas of criticism: the fuzzy multi-dimensionality of diversity climate, and the unclear relationships between diversity climate construct and other related constructs.

A multidimensional conceptual definition. Diversity climate was found to be frequently defined with a “double entry” sentence, combining at least two distinct and competing notions. Besides, numerous studies have conceptualized diversity climate with a variety of inconsistent multi-dimensional definitions, once again raising concern about both internal and external validity. The variety of definitions and dimensions creates confusion and goes in the opposite direction of gaining a clear and robust understanding of the diversity climate phenomenon. This calls for research aiming at establishing a shared understanding of the definition and dimensionality of diversity climate.

Conceptual overlapping and unclear boundaries. Our analysis of the conceptual definitions revealed some overlapping with other established concepts such as fairness or organizational justice. Future research should address the complex links between diversity climate and its neighboring concepts.

Inconsistencies Of Measures Of Diversity Climate

The comparison of the conceptual definitions and their associated measurements revealed some striking misalignments. Moreover, certain measurement instruments were found to target several competing realities and subjects.

Perceptions towards ‘self’ versus perceptions towards others.

Almost all empirical studies captured diversity climate through individuals’ perceptions. In such case, the subject of analysis is the individual him/herself who personally perceives ‘something’ about a ‘target’ constituency. However, the target of this individual perception was found to vary significantly across studies. In some, the respondent was asked about his/her perception of him/herself while other studies focused on the respondent’s perception towards minority groups. We also found that several measures addressed distinct identity sub-groups. Finally, other authors have studied individual perceptions vis-à-vis all participants in the organization regardless of their group identity.

Objective versus self-reported measures. A few studies used objective indicators as part of their operationalization of diversity climate, with workforce composition and heterogeneity being the most recurrent aspects measured. Workforce composition was often analyzed in absolute terms. Such measures of objective diversity challenge diversity climate as a ‘perception’. Even though objective workforce composition is of extreme interest – what does a positive diversity climate mean in the absence of objective diversity? – we believe that future research should nonetheless still differentiate objective workforce composition (a potential antecedent of diversity climate) from diversity climate subjective perceptions.

Misalignments between the diversity climate concept and its measurement. Our analysis shows that although a majority of the reviewed definitions were multidimensional, only a minority of the studies explicitly used scales that captured several dimensions. Furthermore, a number of studies were found to misalign their conceptualization and their operationalization as regards who engenders diversity climate perceptions. For instance, a number of studies identified ‘the organization’ in their definition, but their associated measures focused on ‘managers’ or on ‘top management’.

In short, the lack of consistency outlined above constitutes a serious threat to the overall validity of past diversity climate research.

Conclusion

Scholars and practitioners are now facing two main avenues of action. The first is to simply do away with diversity climate when interest is rather on related concepts that are well-established in social sciences, such as organizational justice or commitment.

For those whose interest is clearly on working on diversity climate, the second alternative is to rely on the use of a stable and integrated multi-dimensional construct. Our study aims at being a stepping stone towards reaching a consensual conceptualization and operationalization of diversity climate.

Our in-depth literature analysis allows us to ground a robust conceptual reconstruction of the diversity climate concept (thus reinforcing its conceptual validity). The definition that we propose and the three underlying dimensions are detailed in our article published in the European Management Review.

Our definition of diversity climate answers the need for more consistency. It also sends a strong signal to practitioners that diversity is a concrete notion and that its proper management is an opportunity for organizations. It clearly focuses on perceptions ‘for others’ rather than for oneself, and in particular for visible or invisible groups relevant to the societal context of the organization, whether the organization wants to follow their mainstream societal context or not. It allows operating at a multiplicity of levels such as the team, organizational and societal levels, taking into account understandings of diversity and discrimination within each society or local context. It focuses on perceptions rather than on objective measures such as objective workforce composition. Finally, it focuses on shared rather than individual perceptions.

This study, Reconstructing the Concept of Diversity Climate – A Critical Review of Its Definition, Dimensions, and Operationalization, was recently published in the European Management Review. The study was published by Gaëlle Cachat-Rosset, Kévin Carillo, Alain Klarsfeld from the Toulouse Business School, University of Toulouse, France.

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