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Leading cultural diversity ethically


Leading Diversity Ethically

Multiple case studies and emerging patterns

The project builds on multiple data sources, multiple fieldwork studies with organization ranging from a local NGO to large multinational corporations, mostly in Sweden but also to some extent in Denmark. We are meeting interlocutors active in various sectors such as IT, logistics, Pharmacy, Defense, Education or Bank, in the private and public sectors. What these organizations have in common is an ambition to make diversity matter and to work for inclusion.

From the variety of perspectives and situations we have met in the project, we can identify major recurring themes: Ownership of the Diversity question: who is in charge? CEOs, owners, HR or everyone? Who benefits from Diversity and Diversity programs? The management team, the mentors and the minorities? What do companies want? Inclusion or assimilation?

We found that diversity and its management is not a straightforward practice. Despite genuine and massive diversity efforts the results of these efforts were sometimes vague, ambiguous, paradoxical or with little impact. One clear outcome of our research confirms existing literature on the importance of leadership support, especially owners. In some organizations, the diversity agenda is clearly claimed (e.g. by CEOs or HR) but not strongly supported by owners. In organizations where owners are actively supporting diversity, we witness an engagement of HR and the workforce that is impressive. It seems that a strong ownership with a strong agenda for diversity and inclusion magnifies the efforts of employees, managers and specialists that are committed to diversity and inclusion. For example, some organizations focus on gender equality and sensitize their employees on the topic with mandatory workshops, adding gender on the Key Performance Indicators and more. This clearly leads to higher awareness of employees on topics of discrimination and inclusion. On the other hand, when owners do not seem to be engaged in diversity issues and leave this agenda to HR or managers, the results are mixed.

Yet, the diversity management practices that are developed are seldom based on informed knowledge about diversity and discrimination. Often, diversity is taken as a positive thing without problematisation or reflexivity. In some instances, certain diversity management practices (e.g. recruitment of diverse employees) can even lead to career’ prospect discrimination. For example, we hear managers say: ‘It’s so nice with these people (read: persons with a minority background), because they are so grateful for the job they got. They don’t really want to progress, and they are so loyal to the company compared to the Swedes!’ This is an example of what we call ‘othering’ and ‘naturalization’ of the minority group’s weak power position. By not recognizing that the ‘gratefulness’, ‘loyalty’ and ‘satisfaction’ could result from precarious positions of persons with minority background on the labour market, employers will not see these employees for their full potential, and will continue to see and treat them as different.

In some organizations, e.g those genuinely committed to programs for the inclusion of migrants in the workforce, we are surprised by the lack of organizational and leadership learning from diversity. For example, mentees in some programs report how they learn to fit in, but mentors do not report learning about dealing with diversity and differences. This may be an indication that inclusion is not yet performed, that organizational climate might be about tolerance of diversity, but it is assimilation, not inclusion, which is taking place. This means that the potential of diversity and the respect of differences is not yet considered and does not yet enrich the company: employees learn to downplay their differences to fit in.

Research findings

The overarching aim of the research project was to investigate how the management of diversity in organizations can be done in an ethical way, that is, (1) in a way that does not imprison the Other in a diversity category, for example gender or age or ethnic origin and (2) in a way that does not reproduce existing unequal power relations to the advantage of a group.

With in-depth investigation of eight case organizations, we aimed to learn from practice in order to develop theory and to contribute to practice. We selected organizations not only active in diversity management, but also serious about this effort, some just starting their diversification, other having thought-through routines and practices relating to diversity and leadership. Through the project, we have collaborated with the Danish Defence and Police force, as well as with major Swedish companies in the sectors of banking, ICT, retail, and logistics, and with middle size companies in the pharmaceutical and IT consulting industries.

In a nutshell, the answer that we have reached, thanks to the multiple cases studied, is that for leading cultural diversity ethically, managers and employees need to be engaged in a learning relationship, in which both parties are respectful, open to and responsible for learning (see Romani & Holgersson, 2020a). Learning appears to be key, as it is an act of transformation: we become different from this acquired knowledge and thus can continuously (re)shape our relationship to another. The importance of the three conditions of respect, openness and co-responsibility for learning also emerged from the different cases. We could observe organizations in which those in a position of power did not respect their collaborators because they saw then as inferior (e.g., Muhr & Holck, 2019), despite their original agenda to support them. In many case companies, we could see that only the ones in a marginalised position (e.g., a minority group) were learning about the (e.g., majority) group that presented itself as the Norm. In these instances, despite good intensions from those in power position, this was not an ethical relationship but rather a situation of subordination that was naturalised (e.g., Romani, Holck & Risberg, 2019). In one instance, we could find all three conditions to ethical leadership, a company in which leadership and organizational culture created an inclusive environment (Holgersson & Romani, 2020). 

Our aim was to contribute to theory development and we reached this aim in each of the three branches of management that we brought together in this project: Leadership, diversity management, and cross-cultural management (CCM). In leadership, the project contributed to queer gender binaries in leadership metaphors, moving scholarly practices of leadership toward queer performativity. Loosening leadership practices from a binary grip enables new relational and ethical possibilities (e.g., Muhr & Ashcraft, 2017). In Diversity Management, the project contributed to show that the experience of minority employees is not only linked to their number, but also to their ascribed status by organizational culture, thus, adding a cultural aspect to token theory (Holgersson & Romani, 2020). Regarding employability theory, the project stressed that employability literature is almost exclusively centered on individuals, when there exist organizational logics to limit the employment of some, for example, highly skilled migrants (Risberg & Romani, 2021). In CCM, the project contributed to theorise a new stream of studies: critical CCM, that goes precisely beyond the imprisonment into cultural differences and shows how intercultural interactions need to be approached at the intersection of multiple power configurations (e.g., Romani, Boussebaa & Jackson, 2020).

The in-depth qualitative research performed in the project enabled us to discover two important gaps in our current study of leading diversity. A dimension that plays a significant role in the work integration of employees is social class. Yet, this dimension is currently side-lined in diversity literature, as another ‘variable’ when it appears to be a major source of social inequality in organizations. In order to address this gap, we have guest edited a special issue on class in a leading journal (see Romani, Holck & Zanoni, 2020). In addition, we identified a gap in research on organizational integration of migrants, that is, their integration at work through work. We aim to address this gap with the forthcoming special issue, also edited in a major academic journal (see Omamovic, Tarim & Holck, forthcoming 2021).

This project second main goal was to contribute to practice and to diffuse our research outcomes outside of academia. We have not only engaged in dialogue with each case organisation, providing continuous feedback on their practices, we have also organised or been part of four practitioner-researcher workshops. Based on these conversations, we have developed a popular science chapter which will be accessible in open access (Holgersson & Romani, forthcoming 2021). We have also published, whenever possible, the scientific articles from this project in open access.

For information on the project contact Laurence Romani (Laurence.romani@hhs.se)

Ethical Diversity

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