Managing Diversity


By DR Belinda Ketel

Overview – Why do you need to manage diversity in your business?

South Africa is one of the most diverse nations in the world. To enable a cohesive society we have one of the most progressive constitutions globally, one that gives protection to the rights of every individual to be valued, respected and not to experience any form of discrimination. As human beings we tend to stereotype women, black people, white people, those with rank, those with different sexual orientations, with disabilities or anyone who we perceive to be part of the so-called “out” groups. This way of thinking still influences how appointments and promotions in organisations are made, how leaders interact with subordinates, how various cultures interact in the workplace and their contributions to the overall organisational. The last influence – the contributions to the overall organisation by various cultures — we call the “organisational culture”. World history shows that stereotyping and discrimination does not automatically disappear; an intervention is necessary.

This means a transformation of heads and hearts (attitudes), behavior, policies and procedures and ensuring that organisations become a place where all can thrive. An effective diversity management strategy is necessary to catalyze the required intervention. If diversity is not managed through a clear and robust strategy it will lead to conflict, distrust, lack of productivity and general separation and exclusion within your business space.

“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities” ― Stephen R. Covey

Understanding Diversity

Diversity means difference. We understand diversity to mean differences in the way that people in our business environment identify themselves and others. Where there are negative associations with any of these identities, it can affect your business and its clients negatively and will need to be managed. Our identity is shaped by 3 dimensions: It is made up of personal identity, social identity and organisational identity.

Your personality (your nature or character) is partly shaped through your genetics (characteristics passed on from parents to children) and partly by the environment in which you grow up. As adults, however, we start making choices about the social groups we want to associate with and feel comfortable to be a part of. Therefore we say that your social identity is the part of your identity derived from knowing that you are a member of a social group or groups and the emotional significance you attach to that membership.

Who you are is also shaped by the organisations you are affiliated to. Think of all the organisations you belong to and how they shape who you are. The roles you play in the organisation also have an impact on your identity. One of the most influential organisations in our lives is the workplace. Most of us spend the majority of our time, 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, with other people in this organisation. The work organisation determines our financial resources, our time off, how we should relate to our colleagues Now just being different in these three ways does not make diversity “bad”. Diversity only has a negative impact on a person or a community or an organisation when one or both of the following two actions take place:

Stereotyping others, being prejudiced towards others. A stereotype is an exaggerated belief, image or distorted truth about a person or group — a generalisation that allows for little or no individual differences or social variation. Stereotypes are based on images in mass media, or reputations passed on by parents, peers and other members of society. Stereotypes can be positive or negative. A prejudice is an opinion, prejudgment or attitude about a group or its individual members. A prejudice can be positive, but in our usage refers to a negative attitude. Prejudices are often accompanied by ignorance, fear or hatred. Prejudices are formed by a complex psychological process that begins with attachment to a close circle of acquaintances or an “in-group” such as a family. Prejudice is often aimed at “out-groups.”

REMEMBER THIS: “Discrimination is behaviour that treats people unequally because of their group memberships. Discriminatory behaviour, ranging from slight to hate crimes, often begins with negative stereotypes and prejudices

Fair & Unfair Discrimination

The Employment Equity Act makes a distinction between fair and unfair discrimination.

Fair Discrimination

This could more accurately be described as corrective action, because it usually acts as a remedy to a situation of unfair discrimination. The fact that certain groups of people experienced unfair discrimination in the past now makes it necessary to take corrective action.

• The legal requirement for employers to establish their own targets for increasing employment and promotion opportunities for people from under-represented groups. We commonly know this as “affirmative action”.

• Allowing time off for people of the Muslim faith on Fridays to go to the mosque. People of the Christian faith have experienced for years the privilege of having Sundays off to partake in their religious rituals

• Making adjustments to buildings, equipment and distribution of work tasks to reasonably accommodate people with disabilities

• Providing parents with adequate maternity and paternity leave and taking other measures such as providing childcare facilities to make the workplace family friendly.

Unfair Discrimination

The Employment Equity Act (chapter 2, section 6) describes unfair discrimination as follows: “No person may unfairly discriminate, directly or indirectly, against an employee, in any employment policy or practice, on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, HIV status, conscience, belief, political opinion, culture, language and birth.”

Have a Diversity Management Strategy or Plan

To ensure that you and your business are better prepare, equipped and ready to deal with diversity issues that might crop up, you would be wise to put together a simple but useful Diversity Management Strategy (or plan). A Diversity Management Plan for your business would involve the following steps and components:

• Clarification of your business’s purpose (vision, mission or similar)

• Clarification of your business’s values (how you want to go about your business)

• Identification of what diversity means to you, your staff and your key stakeholders – what elements of diversity are included in your specific business sector/environment

• Clarification of how you all agree to treat each other, behave towards each other and how you interact with one another – this is so that you can more easily identify when somebody does NOT do this (= unfair discrimination)

• Clarification on processes to be followed if unfair discrimination is felt to have taken place – who do they tell, how do they do this, what is the “safe space” or this to be handled. (this does not mean legal processes – just a forum to share and talk and iron out the issues before the escalate) Steps to put together your plan:

• Communicate your need to highlight diversity as an advantage in your business space;

• Share your ideas on how managing diversity can be a positive in your business space;

• Create various opportunities (meetings, training sessions, workshops, forums, chat-shops, poster presentations, tea-time breaks etc) during which your staff can share their ideas on the various components – the more they give input the more they will buy-in and follow the steps that are agreed upon;

• Document the process – even a short 1-page summary of values, understanding diversity, agreement of behaviour, and suggested process to follow would be sufficient; and lastly

• Make this document available to your teams – e-mail it, print it, post it, put it up on notice boards, share it a meetings, put it into a poster format – whatever works best for your business dynamic.

• Special note: If you don’t want to do this yourself as the business owner or manager, you can identify a “Diversity Champion” in your team who can run with this.

Benefits & Consequences of Managing Diversity

“Employees frequently make decisions that draw upon their cultural background. A more diverse workforce…will increase organisational effectiveness…will lift morale, bring greater access to new segments of the marketplace, and enhance productivity… In short diversity will be good for business.” David A. Thomas and Robin J. Ely in Making Differences Matter: A new paradigm for managing diversity (Harvard Business Review, Sept/Oct 1996. Benefits:

• There is less conflict and disputes in the workplace

• It creates a situation of flexibility which ensures survival

• Increased productivity: o Diverse work teams tend to outperform homogenous teams. By learning to work together they can use their diverse abilities to solve problems faster.

• Enhanced creativity (the ability to innovate) : o Australian Airline Qantas: won millions of Australian dollars’ worth of catering contracts by getting its diverse staff to develop new menus for different cultural diets.

• Increased organisational legitimacy – our diverse customer base are more satisfied with a workforce that can identify with their needs

• A partnership between management and their employees

• Savings on the cost of recruitment and retention of staff: o Rank Xerox London office: diversity measures brought a return of £1 million (R16 million) through savings on recruitment and retention of staff;

• Enables a company to capture new markets. o Eskom South Africa realised that they needed to develop a new product for economically less advantaged communities that had problems with for instance getting to payment points for electricity. They designed the pre-paid electrical meter that became an instant success not only with the intended market, but also with more affluent communities.

The Consequences of NOT managing Diversity effectively in your business: There are often people that say that diversity interventions create more problems than they solve. And you will also come across employees, customers and suppliers who have a negative attitude about diversity. Why can diversity interventions often create more problems than they solve?

• Many managers do not understand what the concept of diversity really means.

• Despite being told all about the value of diversity to the organisation, many managers, ‘in their hearts’, are not convinced that diversity makes sound business sense.

• Diversity skills, which are transferable to any context, are not always explained in a practical way.

• Diversity is often not integrated with the other core business and people management principles and practices.

• Diversity is often not performance managed in the same way as other strategic objectives.

• There is a saying: What you do not measure, does not get done.”


• Think about your business environment? What differences have become evidence in the six months? How were they dealt with? What impact did this have on your business, your staff and your customers? Is there room for improvement?


Diversity is evident in any business environment – where you put people together to achieve a goal you will find difference in the ways that they want to go about this. This unit explained diversity to you both from a common understanding perspective and from a legislative perspective. The most important tool that you should take from this module is the process and components of putting together a simple and user friendly plan or strategy for your business in terms of diversity. Make diversity a visible and obvious part of your business’s culture – use it to your advantage and gain a competitive edge from it. To help you along your journey of improving the ways that your business can manage diversity, refer to these three useful websites that provide free tools, templates and tips for you as the business owner and/or manager: