Painting over the cracks

Diversity and equality are not the same thing. HR would be wise to remember that. Equality is the one that counts

‘In a paint factory, who mixes the most colourful paint?” enquires the Department of Trade and Industry in an advert to promote new equality laws. In the picture are three identical tins of paint labelled as ‘Atheist yellow’, ‘Christian yellow’ and ‘Hindu yellow’. “Preventing discrimination and promoting equality and diversity can help employers attract, motivate and retain the best staff and access wider markets,” wheedles the accompanying blurb.

Anyone who thinks about this for a minute might notice some peculiarities. The advert is effective for communicating the message of equality – how ridiculous to think theology gives someone an edge in the paint-mixing trade. But is it really an effective way to communicate a message of diversity?

Companies that are interested in diversity have always relied on the argument that a diverse workforce enables them to better understand a diverse customer base; serving a pluralist society requires pluralist organisations, so individual difference among employees is clearly commercially beneficial.

Take investment banking, for instance. Several global investment banks take diversity surprisingly seriously because they feel the clubby, ‘boysy’ and overwhelmingly monochrome culture does them no favours in serving a mixed bag of international clients.

But the DTI paint tins appear to contradict this view. If everyone is equally employable, with the Hindu having no intrinsic edge when serving other Hindus over the Christian, why is diversity in an employer’s interest?

Avoiding uncapped tribunal payouts is one good reason, of course, but that is a negative justification. Yet since the early 1990s, diversity has been sold as being to an employer’s direct commercial advantage.

The DTI advert reactivates an old and contentious dispute: that equality and diversity are separate objectives, and it is difficult to stress the merits of one, without doing so at the expense of the other.

The current habit is to conflate diversity and equality as being different labels for the same thing, albeit with subtle variations: equal opportunities sounds a bit legalistic and 1970s, and tends to involve specific obligations; diversity sounds more modern and dynamic and commits no-one to anything specific (ergo its popularity).

It should be remembered that when diversity was conquering the consensus in the early 1990s, this was not the intention of its proponents – they had it in for equal opportunities in quite an aggressive way.

“An open, objective and fair organisation is not one that downplays or elevates group differences, but is one in which difference can thrive,” wrote Rajvinder Kandola and Johanna Fullerton in Managing the Mosaic in 1994. The implication of this was that by concentrating on group difference – stratified by ethnicity, gender, disability, etc – equality was somehow ‘unfair’. In their view, equality was hung up on groups and laws. Diversity chimed with the more individualistic tenor of the era, and did not need to go scurrying off to check the words in a statute book all the time.

For what it’s worth, at the time, I agreed with them that diversity was clearly distinct from equal opportunities. But I didn’t think that it marked an improvement. There was something dubiously flimsy about the popular arguments for diversity. It felt as if employers were attempting to ditch their commitments to uphold equality under the pretext of ‘moving beyond’ it, when discrimination was patently a group phenomenon.

Anyway, by 2000 such squabbles had become less important than they had seemed earlier. As time moved on, diversity and equality blended into each other, and the debate about the boundaries between them became as arcane as that between where human resources ends and human capital begins.

Employers continued to rhapsodise about the power of diversity and the Government continued to chivvy them along with more legislation – since December last year, equality has five legal dimensions: race, gender, disability, sexual orientation and religion or belief. A sixth – age – is soon to be added.

Yet, in truth, the fault lines between diversity and equality have never been entirely hidden. Every now and again they reappear once more, as vivid as a tin of yellow paint.

The recently confected controversy involving the home secretary David Blunkett’s special adviser, Matt Cavanagh, and a book he wrote when he was an academic, is a case in point.

In an incendiary manner, Cavanagh has put his finger on an inherent logical weakness in the business case for diversity. If a pluralist organisation is best placed to serve a pluralist customer base, his argument goes, what of an organisation attempting to reach a homogenous audience – a firm, perhaps, that is aware of the prejudices of its customers? Is it entitled to exclude workers who are ‘different’?

His book gives the following example: “A company realises that its customers, who are predominantly white, tend to prefer to do business with white staff. Depending on how strong this preference is, it might be rational for the company to discriminate against black applicants on the basis that, for this reason alone, they tend to be less good at the job.”

We do not need to endorse Cavanagh’s views to agree that he has identified a strong challenge to the business case for diversity. But equally, and unintentionally, it is easy to see that his example provides unassailable grounds for why we continue to need equality legislation to ensure that such hypothetically rational decisions by employers never come to pass.

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