Getting diversity at work to work

Case studies

Getting diversity at work to work

what we know and what we still don’t know

The fundamental question is: which diversity strategies work – and which don’t – and what is the ultimate aim anyway? Increasing the pool of talent? Innovation? Enhanced decision-making? Improved customer satisfaction? By Juliet Bourke - Consulting, Partner.

Deloitte’s 2015 report “Human Capital Trends 2015 – Leading in the new world of work” observed that “A diverse workforce is a company’s lifeblood, and diverse perspectives and approaches are the only means of solving complex and challenging business issues”. While this intuitive statement rings true, there is significant degree of uncertainty about how to bring it to life through a dedicated diversity and inclusion strategy. 

This uncertainty prompted Dr Guillaume, Emeritus Professor Woods and Dr Sacramento (Aston University), Dr Dawson (University of Sheffield) and Professor West (Lancaster University to undertake a literature review of academic (diversity) research. They found that academic researchers are still exploring the necessary conditions and mechanisms for diversity to positively affect individual, work performance and organisational outcomes, and therefore can offer only limited evidence-based advice about which practices should be adopted by management to promote positive outcomes. Moreover, they found a significant lack of evidence based decision making by organisations developing, and evaluating, effective diversity and inclusion strategies. Meaning that much of organizational practice is more likely to be based on intuition than fact.

The findings are challenging, particularly for organisations which are investing significant resources and leadership support to D&I-related initiatives. The authors acknowledge the progress that has been made in understanding diversity and highlight the ways organisations can practically use research findings (what is known as opposed to unknown) to inform and validate their investment in D&I strategies and initiatives. Importantly, they also identify where more research is required, the challenges in collecting evidence based knowledge and the importance of communicating research findings to HR practitioners in understandable ways. 

UK literature review, September 2014


The review aimed to analyse the literature on diversity and diversity management in order to provide a better picture of what is currently known and to clarify what is still not well understood.


The authors conducted a detailed review of diversity and diversity management articles to identify diversity knowledge that researchers and practitioners can confidently rely upon, as well as gaps in the research and areas for further exploration.


The researchers’ primary finding is that many workplace diversity and inclusion initiatives are more likely to be based on intuition rather than fact. Moreover, there is a lack of clarity about the objective of a diversity strategy, as well as the inputs. This lack of clarity creates a blurring of goals (e.g. customer and employee satisfaction) as well as initiatives (e.g. recruiting from a broader pool of talent, and creating diverse teams).

They authors found that when researchers/practitioner discuss diversity they are likely to be referring to one of three things: (i) simple demographic diversity; (ii) relational demography; or (iii) workgroup diversity, but all discussions focus on the same question, namely how do each of these factors affect work outcomes? The final question (and finding) relates to diversity management, namely that “if we want to get diversity at work to work, we first need to understand how, when and why simple demographics, relational demographics or work group diversity affects work outcomes”. 

  1. Simple demographics: How does the demographic background of a person affect their work outcome? Studies on simple demographics are dominated by studies on selection, appraisal and compensation, and in particular the differential experiences/treatment of demographically diverse groups. The authors noted that considerable research has led to an understanding of when and how work outcomes are impacted by demographic differences. Key examples include selection methods to safeguard against the discrimination of minority groups, taking steps (such as training and data reviews) to remove bias from organisational processes such as performance management, and understanding the Attraction-Selection-Attrition (ASA) model which causes similar people to be attracted to organisations, be selected by organisations, and be retained by organisations.
  2. Relational demographics: How does being demographically dissimilar from peers affect a person’s work outcomes? Research on relational demographics focusses on the effect of dissimilarity from one’s colleagues and its impact on individual work outcomes, such as attachment and discretionary effort. This line of exploration builds on the simple demographic studies by suggesting that dissimilarity undermines performance. Nevertheless, there is considerable variation in the research findings, with some studies showing that group members with a demographic background that is associated with a lower status (e.g. women) are more likely to identify with a work group in which there is greater dissimilarity. Additionally, creating a climate where minority demographic members are valued and viewed positively can reduce the negative effect of dissimilarity (e.g. younger team members in an older team).
  3. Work group diversity: How does work group diversity affect work outcomes? Workgroups have become more heterogeneous, either through a deliberate strategy (e.g. multi-disciplinary teams) or because the workforce is changing. Research on workgroup diversity has focused on the impact on increasing levels of heterogeneity (difference) in work teams and group performance. The results fall at two ends of a spectrum, with one end demonstrating positive impacts, and the other end demonstrating negative effects. These divergent outcomes have been explained via two theories. Firstly, that group members will align themselves based on similarities, creating challenges in diverse teams, and secondly that variations in groups (skills, abilities and access to resources) create opportunities for a broader set of information to be considered and therefore enable better decision-making. It has been challenging for researchers to reconcile these two divergent sets of results and theories, and the focus has been on examining the surrounding context. For example, the complexity of the task and need for inter-dependence, status, whether the cultural background is gender balanced or racially balanced, and the length of time the workgroup is together.
  4. Diversity management: How does diversity management relate to work outcomes? Notably the researchers concluded that “aside from some noteworthy efforts, there is little research assessing the effectiveness of diversity interventions”. Nevertheless, what does exist demonstrates that increasing the diversity profile of a workforce is insufficient to drive demonstrably positive outcomes, and creating an inclusive culture is critical to success. An inclusive climate has been found to have positive effects on employee psychological safety and in turn, performance and organisational citizenship behaviors. The effect of this is stronger for minority groups. Other influencers include the leadership team’s demographic profile, as well as its values and behaviors in relation to supporting diversity, and the extent to which organisational artifacts, practices and procedures that emphasize the value of diversity exist – i.e. the “centrality” of diversity to the identity of the organisation. Overall, despite the positive investment in organisational diversity to date, the researchers found that there is still a lot that is unclear and research to date - often using “opportunity” data as opposed to rigorous scientific approaches - has not reliably shown the positive impacts of diversity in every organisational context. Leveraging what is known is key for practitioners when shaping their diversity initiatives, as well as knowledge sharing and transparency between organisations about when diversity doesn't work to help improve overall understanding


The primary implication of this research is that organisations have under invested in evidence based decision making about their Diversity and Inclusion Strategy. Moreover, without a strong fact base, organisations cannot be certain about the effectiveness of their strategies and are prone to experiencing failure. Clearly there are overlaps between organisational experience and academic research, most notably in relation to the importance of creating inclusive workplaces, with an emphasis on the centrality of diversity for organisational success, and leadership accountability.

The second implication is the importance of bridging the information and gap between diversity researchers and practitioners to ensure that there is a common understanding of what works and what doesn't. At the moment the two worlds appear to spend more time apart than together. The researcher suggested that “the need to communicate research evidence to practitioners is hugely important because more than 80% of what is written about diversity management published in non-academic outlets is of questionable quality” (Kulik & Roberson, 2008, referenced in the article).

The authors suggest that the way forward must involve:

  • Research assessing the effectiveness of diversity interventions and their results in the workplace
  • Collaboration between practitioners, organisations, and academics
  • Dissemination of evidence based findings in a language accessible for practitioners
  • Development of evidence-based tools that are practical and valuable.

Only then will organisations be adequately equipped to shift diversity from rhetoric to reality.

To read the full article, see Guillaume, Y.R.F, Dawson, J.F, Woods, S.A, Sacramento, C.A & West, M.A. (2013), “Getting diversity at work to work: what we know and what we still don’t know” Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, Vol. 86, No. 2, pp.123-141.


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