Friday, July 15, 2011

Diversity: It's All About Critical Mass

*Picture courtesy of Bad Stock Photo of the Week at Know HR.

Some of you may have seen this spirited debate on diversity at  There seem to be several schools of thought:
  1. ‘I just want to hire the best candidate’ – People in this camp accuse diversity proponents of foisting less skilled employees on them in order to meet some meaningless quota.
  2. ‘Diversity isn’t just about race, religion or gender’ – People in this camp like to broaden the definition of diversity to include people who work and think differently, claiming that these differences inspire greater creativity and performance. 
  3. ‘People who assume diversity means hiring less qualified people are the reason we need diversity legislation in the first place’ – People in this camp are stridently pro-diversity and insist that minorities aren’t asking for a handout, just a fair shot. 
All of these have merit but are incomplete.  There’s actually a 4th camp that I didn’t see represented in the debate, although I may have overlooked it: Companies that embrace diversity have higher performance.

It's pretty easy to make a 'common sense' business case for diversity:
  • Your customers are diverse and the leadership strategy of the 50s may not help you relate to them or inspire them to buy your products. 
  • Competition is more fierce and new ideas are needed, wherever they come from.
  • Teams have become more important in a business context, which means that managing diversity has become a critical business skill.

If you prefer hard numbers to common sense, a Cornell University study found that once diversity reaches a critical mass (20-25%) at the leadership level the company realizes higher performance. 

Interestingly, below this critical mass diversity has a negative impact, possibly because until critical mass is reached everyone treats it like a quota and the company fails to value and leverage the unique contributions of the minority leaders. 

So, to people who want to hire the “best” candidate I say, ‘Perhaps you haven't reached critical mass yet.’  To people with a broader definition of diversity I say, ‘Yes, even wearing plaid or a nose ring can be considered diverse.’  And to people who think everyone should be given a fair chance based on their skills, I say, ‘Aw.  I think so, too.’

And to companies who have truly embraced diversity and inclusion and are realizing the benefits that a diverse workforce and leadership team can bring I say, ‘Yeah, baby!’

For more on diversity, HR luminaries Dave Ryan and Lyn Hoyt also have some choice observations, which you can read over at HR Official and The Bacon Hut.

And if you want to look at a compelling example of diversity in action, check out PepsiCo’s Diversity and Inclusion site.  


  1. Luminaries... hmmm; if we can embrace everyone then makes us old Christian white guys can fall back into favor.

  2. Sorry, Dave, white male baby boomers who follow mainstream religions don't get any diversity points ... but thanks for playing. ;-)


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