HR and Diversity – Not Exactly Soulmates


Back in October, you let a discussion with the HR leaders at The HR Reinvention Experiment titled “Reality Check: Does HR Really Get Diversity?” This discussion left me with a number of thoughts and questions that I think might be interesting to talk about here.

As we had the discussion that day and you talked through some of the really compelling cases for getting real about diversity in organizations, I was struck by how much my peers in that discussion seemed to really be struggling with this issue.  It appeared to me that they had all at least considered the importance of diversity and some of them work in an organizations where they have diversity initiatives in place.  But, when it came down to talking about HR’s role in driving a more diverse workplace, there didn’t seem to be a lot of either conviction or certainty about how HR should be involved.

The bigger realization that emerged for me out of this conversation was that not only does HR not seem to get it, we may in fact be a bit part of the reason that our organizations aren’t more diverse.  I guess I should clarify that when I am talking about diversity here, I’m really talking about organizations who welcome, embrace and promote all types of difference.   I’m talking about inclusive workplaces that are places where difference flourishes.  What I’m not talking about is affirmative action plans.

Human Resources is the function within organizations that writes and maintains policies.  We create the dress codes that make people look more uniform, more the same.  We design performance appraisals that reinforce a specific set of behaviors, generally a set list, with the intention that the overall behavior of our employee population is more consistent, more the same.  We enforce compensation equity and fairness, treating all people more the same.   We build recruitment processes to attract and hire people that “fit the mold” and are the same as the other people we employee who have proven to be high performers.  As organizations have increasing pushed towards a standard of efficiency, we’ve begun to treat people more and more like machines.  And HR, despite being the department with “human” in our title, has led the charge because that’s what was expected of us.

So, I walked away with some conflicted emotions.  Do I think HR gets diversity?  Not really.  I think we have a sense that it is important, but I think that the nature of our job gets in the way.  Do I think that HR can be the champion for organizational diversity?  Probably not.  Before the conversation at HR Revinvention, I may have argued the opposite.  But, as the conversation unfolded, it became clear to me that the work that HR does most of the time is designed to drive variance and difference out of the system, not invite more in.  So, until the fundamental focus of HR shifts, we probably can’t effectively be the champion for diversity in our organizations.

That being said, I’d like to know if you share the same opinion.  Despite this being the case, it’s important that HR teams and leaders acknowledge this dilemma and start taking some steps to become less of an obstacle to diversity and more inclusive.  What would be your suggestions for where we should start?  Do you have some ideas for practical steps that HR pros can take to move towards being more inclusive and to become more of a champion for diversity despite the barriers?



  1. I would probably agree that many HR policies invite homogeneity and discourage diversity, but would argue that they DON’T HAVE TO. An HR policy that invites difference into an organization could be crafted, if that was the explicit goal that the policy’s authors had in mind.

    Sadly, it is our nature as humans to value similarity over difference, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so in a 21st century economy. Luckily, we are not ruled by our collective amygdala, and can override that ancient tendency should we choose to. And I think we have to.

    Saying that HR doesn’t really get diversity so the champions of diversity should be found elsewhere might be a cop-out. I’d much rather see HR get all bad-ass and revolutionary where D&I is concerned. Because if HR can’t get their heads around it, how is your average middle manager ever going to find his/her way on board?

  2. I’m sorta with Eric on this one. If not us (HR hacks), than who? Taking the D & I conversation out of HR makes sense, but other than a stand alone business area, where would it go? I also think Jason is spot on regarding the current goals of HR being too focused on generating sameness and screening out difference.

    The easy answer is that everyone in an organization owns part of the conversation and shares in the journey. That sounds great but we all know that D & I needs to be on someone’s job description and a part of their comp structure in order for real change to take place.

    In the end, I like the idea of fixing a broken HR paradigm rather than trying to find a new champion for D & I work. But I’m an insurgent who routinely tilts at windmills. Thanks for asking the questions.


  3. Wow. Nothing like a reality check to kick-start my Friday. I’m about to launch not only a major D & I initiative in my organization; but a major “refresh” of our service excellence priorities using our front line staff as well. My call to action from this post is that I must ensure we recognize (on paper, not just lip-service) that differences are a core competency for us moving forward. Quite frankly, the last thing I want to be known for as an HR pro is that I’ve successfully homogenized my workforce. Good grief! Thanks Jason!!

  4. I agree that someone needs to own D&I initiatives, however HR can’t do it alone. Without serious support and role modelling at the top of the house, it becomes a no win situation for HR. I’ve seen diversity networks owned by the business unit and facilitated with HR support to be effective in ensuring that D&I becomes part of the culture. Policies and practices need to line up to the goals to avoid the sameness but it’s a fine line between being too vague and too homogenious.

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