Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Diversity - the new Stalinism?

Having a pop at diversity is like spitting at the Queen Mother. It's a taboo. In this pc age diversity is the new creed - bring me your black, brown, yellow, gay, disabled, old, young, female and unwashed and I will bring you success. Except it doesn't work like that......

I've worked with three organisations recently who claimed to embrace diversity. For one, it was understated and the organisation was truly becoming blind to the gender, colour and sexual orientation of their people. For another, there's a stong whiff of tokenism in their approach, and for the third - part of the UK's wonderful public services, the whole issue has been politicised to the extent that people blatantly unsuited to the roles they're filling have been hired to ensure the working population is proportionate to wider society.

Now I'm beginning to sound like a right wing, racist homophobic bigot which is not the intention here. Actually, I'm the usual mix of liberal-thinking with a dash of small-c conservatism that marks my generation. However, I'm a believer in two things - meritocracy and keeping politics as far from the workplace as possible. No, I'm a bleiever in three things, as I'm a believer in diversity too.

Company number one is a publicly listed company. It has a diversity policy focused of recognising and building on the strengths that a diverse working community brings to an organisation. It doesn't hire on the basis of colour or belief - and now that age discrimination has come into place, it's not exclusively targetting the 20-30 somethings either. It's by no means a perfect organisation, but it works because diversity is simply part of the fabric rather than being an 'issue'.

Organisation three, working in local government is at the other end of the scale. Here there's a posse of 'diversity officers' each seemingly with their own agenda. It makes hiring on the basis of merit more difficult than it needs to be, and ridding the organisation of under-performers is almost impossible. There are some fantastic staff members of all ages, orientations and ethnicity across the organisation - and some really dreadful people too, but isn't that the same everywhere?

The difference with company number 1 is that organisation 3 isn't colour blind, nor does it treat gay people, older people, disabled people or anyone else who stands out from the crowd as part of the 'crowd'. Somehow, by seeking to be inclusive, the organisation has radicalised diversity. It has become a barrier to success rather than an enabler. Rather than building a culture of 'one team working together', the diversity team has become divisive and often ruthless in championing its cause - no matter what the greater good of the organisation is. Somehow, in its zeal to stamp out prejudice, it's creating new prejudice.

Diversity is one of the most valuable principles we must operate by - but why is it handled so badly by so many organisations?

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