The same old diversity

Corporations will employ all kinds - as long as they do business the American way

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

There must have been a time when 'equal opportunities' was a newly minted term, one that could inspire change, hope and passion. But it doesn't cut the mustard in corporate life today. It is oldspeak, now confined to the linguistic dustbin and replaced by 'diversity' - itself under threat from the new pretender to the PC throne, 'inclusiveness'.

So companies that were in favour of equal opps and then diversity are now committed to inclusiveness. One way to upset your HR director - and probably limit your own career - is to ask politely for their explanation of the difference between these terms: I have yet to hear a compelling distinction. Answers on a postcard... (Some firms, hedging their bets, are even developing 'Inclusiveness and Diversity' policies.)

These terms are examples of what the philosopher Charles Stevenson called 'moral words', those 'ah-ha' expressions designed to give a warm glow to people who use them. In themselves, they often mean all things to all people - in other words, nothing.

Inclusiveness is particularly vacuous. Many of the corporations that proclaim it are highly exclusive - hiring only bright people with relevant qualifications, keeping out unwelcome visitors with security guards and keeping all their money for themselves, for example. Nothing wrong with any of this - but it does beg a question about who is to be included in the 'inclusive' firm. If it means nothing more than increasing the number of women or people from ethnic minorities, then for heaven's sake let us not undermine such worthy goals with such worthless words.

As it happens, diversity is in any case making a spirited bid for lexical survival, not least through some energetic prefixing of other warm words: Global Diversity is now all the rage. Understandably, multinationals are leading this charge. But at first sight the notion of global diversity is even harder to grasp. At one level, it seems like a descriptive truism: if you think about the globe, there is indeed quite a bit of diversity of all kinds contained within it. The term could allude to the fact that multinationals contain employees from diverse cultures, who may therefore have some difficulties working together. Or it could be an aspiration to increase the amount of diversity within a firm, across the world.

What global diversity usually seems to mean in practice is the second of these: finding ways to work across national and cultural boundaries. But the solution, paradoxically, is usually a programme of homogenisation, with initiatives to instil a single company 'culture' and the standardisation of working practices, performance measuring systems and training policy. Not to make people more different, but less.

And given that most multinationals are US-owned, the standards adopted tend to be American. Indeed, US firms often send out Americans to run operations in France, India or the UK. This is partly because HQ in New York or St Louis finds it difficult to come to terms with the diversity of working practices in different nations: try telling an American CEO about siesta time. And so global 'diversity' policies are actually global Americanisation policies.

Indeed, one of the most important legacies of US-dominated globalisation may be the export of an American attitude to work and business - an important ingredient in what economist John Kay calls the 'American business model' - to previously sleepier corners of the world. This is not necessarily good news. After all, sleepi-ness is better than workaholism. We must con- stantly remind ourselves that the US is more 'productive' than Europe only because of longer working hours - productivity per worker is the same.

And yet these firms are also the ones that worry most about ensuring a representative workforce in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexuality.

You look hard for senior women or people from ethnic minorities in Europe - much less so in US corporates. But there are some tensions here. The fact is that the diversity between black and white Americans, or male and female French, is minimal compared with the difference between almost any American worker and a French one - at least in terms of attitudes towards work. At an international level, the distinctions that count are not sex or pigmentation, but attitudes to work and corporate life.

One of the hot questions in the small circle of egalitarian philosophers is 'Equality of what?' A similar challenge has to be made to any proclamations of diversity. Diversity, yes: but diversity of what?

Of colour, gender and sexuality? Or of culture, attitude and beliefs?

A diversity policy that promotes more women, lesbians and gay men and people from ethnic minorities is a worthwhile one in itself. But if it sits alongside a drive to Americanise the culture of a worldwide organisation, it is not clear that more diversity will be the end result.

The real challenge is not to have lots of black, female and gay profit-obsessed, Starbucks-sipping workaholics, alongside the male Wasp profit-obsessed, Starbucks-sipping workaholics; it is to embrace diverse worldviews, philosophies of life and work, mental architectures and value systems. Otherwise diversity will be all surface and no depth.

Richard Reeves is founder of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail: richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk.

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