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Fleet of Foot – Whither Diversity?

HRINZ would like to thank Dr Edwina Pio, Associate Professor, AUT, for writing this article

The recession looms large, globalization impinges on my consciousness and I find it exceedingly difficult to have reasonable margins of profit.
Redundancies stare me in the eye, as companies shave off their employee numbers in their struggle to survive. And yet the tui sings, the waves lap on our shores, and the golden autumn colours caress my senses.

Lulled into quietude, I contemplate my organization – what do I need to do differently? Ah yes diversity, the D word. Touchy, a source of conflict and dissipated energy! Management gurus tell us that it is the fleet of foot who will survive, those who utilize their diverse resources with agility. But why do organizations shy away from diversity issues? From migrant issues? From age? From women in senior management? But does the diversity discourse anoint the bottom line? Wither diversity resources in our island nation with its small population?

Diversity is the essence of life and in its simplest form means difference. Difference can embrace demography, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical capabilities, body image, work ethic, religion and age.
Perhaps you have seen media coverage of wonderful diversity practices in organizations such as Omega - an initiative of the Committee for Auckland, a not-for-profit organisation aiming to positively influence Auckland’s development; Christchurch-based GPC Electronics designs and manufactures complex, high-tech items for companies all over the world, with names like Toshiba, Nortel, NEC and Siemens on its books.

GPC Electronics wouldn’t exist without the specialist skills that migrants have brought including the cultural awareness that is critical to building export markets; Kairanga Poultry; Vodafone; Contract Warehousing ltd.; Land information New Zealand; Horticultural services Wanganui; ACI glass packaging; Linton photography ltd.; Tait electronics and Vehicle testing station.

Perhaps too you have heard whispers of some of the following experiences in the New Zealand workplace:

Pablo Leon was invited for an interview, where he believed he performed very well, but he remembered being requested to repeat what he had said, as the panel found it difficult to understand his accent, despite the fact that he spoke perfect English. But he thought to himself, this was for an engineering position and so his excellent work experience in Latin America and his qualifications would outweigh his accent – he did not get the job.

Shanti Singh is employed at a tertiary institute where she has worked for four years in a job well below the skills and experience she has from her country of origin India – whenever she asks her immediate supervisor about promotion, she is told that she is not ready, but many of her colleagues who have much less experience than her and have been at the institute for less than two years, are given high level jobs.

Scott McDonald is an experienced builder with over four decades of experience, but now that he has reached the age of sixty plus, he cannot find work, as employers consider him too grey.

Nafisa Abdullah, finds that while she gets calls based on her resume, when she goes for interviews she never gets the job – she has been for more than twenty interviews. Nafisa wears a headscarf.

Wu-Li Xu was requested not to heat her lunch in the pantry of her organization, as her colleagues did not like the aroma of her food.

New Zealand still has a very long way to go to appreciate, understand work with and through diversity in the workplace. Extensive research indicates that diversity can have benefits in terms of reduced employee turnover, increased employee commitment, increasing the talent pool of the organization/community/society, transnational interconnectedness, problem solving, widening the creative horizon, cooperative behaviors, reputational benefits, resource acquisition, increase of business, a wider customer base, along with singing in tune with EEO policies and HR legislation. Negative effects include conflict, insecurity, fear, communication blockades, stereotypes, discrimination, prejudice and in group/out group phenomena.

While diversity management takes place in the present it does so against a background of the past and the future.

NZ rests on a vital document the treaty of Waitangi and due consideration needs to be paid to this vital aspect of the politico-historical context. In the legislative context, the Human Rights Act of 1993 specifies a number of personal characteristics that are protected from discrimination and include the following: sex (gender), marital status, religious belief, ethical belief, color, race, or ethnic or national origins, disability, age, political opinion, employment status, family status and sexual orientation.

Why do organizations shy away from diversity issues? It is a touchy issue that is difficult and complex and even after discussions people often feel dissatisfied and accused of something – this nebulous something is what people do not want to touch particularly when one wants to be very politically correct. Conversations about ethnicity may be like hand grenades rolled across a table – no one wants to pick them up! Data is difficult to obtain – numbers do not tell the whole story, and organizations can be wary about measurement as they do not want litigation.

It is awkward to note that diversity in NZ is often viewed as a hindrance rather than an asset. There are an embarrassingly small number of ethnic minorities and women at senior levels in organizations.

While this is not necessarily an argument for more such individuals, one is arguing for the fact that organizations seem to be rather lethargic in responding to the changing trends in the workplace and many respond with outmoded implementation and ambiguous practices contributing to a continuation of largely homogenous and white senior management and workforces.

Diversity management is not only an issue of moral imperatives and business imperatives, but as a diverse nationwe have to find ways to draw on diversity for harmonious results including economic and social benefits for all. And organizations are breeding grounds for perpetrating injustices as well as initiating and igniting change? Thus people in power, in this case managers, can strongly facilitate social inequality or equality and can mould the outcomes necessary for our diverse nation.

So how does diversity remain on the radar screen? What has to be done differently to leverage this asset? Will labour market trends help us with our diversity decisions? And what will the labour market look like in 12 years in 2020? NZ is still relatively youthful, but the median age of the population will increase from 36 years of age now to a projected 39 years in 2020.

Around one in four people in the labour force are likely to be aged 55 years and over, with many people working beyond the traditional retirement age of 65 years. Stereotypes regarding older workers can become a self fulfilling prophecy with de-motivated older workers who underperform, have poorer performance appraisals and receive mundane jobs, particularly because recruitment is more youth oriented.

Some of the discriminatory stereotypes regarding older workers include resistance to change and problems with technology, whereas positive adaptability factors are reliability, loyalty and job commitment. Key steps for employers to create a vibrant age-diverse labor force include incentives to stay in the labour market, no discrimination based on age, improvement of training and guidance, fitting the job to older workers and workers to the job and scrutinizing work related policies with an eye on age discrimination.

The future is likely to show a continuing move towards flexible workforces with shorter term or temporary employment arrangements, particularly for high skilled workers with internationally transferable skills. NZ will increasingly compete with other countries which are moving to develop policies to attract and retain these highly skilled visitors, such as attracting top quality international students.

Many international students are likely to remain in NZ after their studies. Furthermore one-third of our trade is with Asia and on the global scenario the importance of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) continues to grow.

Statistics NZ informs us about the ethnic share of NZ population 2006 and 2021: European or Other 76.8% (2006) and in 2021 71.3%

Maori 14.9% (2006); 16.2% (2021)

Asian 9.7% (2006); 14.5% (2021)

Pasifika 7.2% (2006); 9.1% (2021)

Among all people in NZ the five largest groups in 2006 are: NZ European, Maori, Chinese, Samoan, Indian; European five largest groups consist of: NZ European, English, Dutch, British, Australian; Pacific five largest groups are: Samoan, Cook Island Maori, Tongan, Niuean, Fijian; Maori five largest groups are: Ngapuhi, Ngati Porou, Ngati Kahungunu, Ngai Tahu, Te Arawa; and amongst Asians the five largest groups: Chinese, Indian, Korean, Filipino, Japanese.

At the turn of the millennium, 175 million people comprising almost 3 percent of the world population could be classified as migrants and people movement will continue over our lifetimes. Policy makers see the advantage in welcoming migrants, but society including businesses tends to see them as a problem and sometimes as a threat. However, the ability of societies to absorb ‘foreigners’, will determine which economies will grow and which will fade into the twilight.

A 2007 study by the DoL on the fiscal impacts of immigration 2005/06 a working paper on the economic impacts of immigration, indicates that the NZ born population of 3.1 million had a net fiscal impact of $2838 million, while the migrant population of approximately 927,200 individuals had a positive net fiscal impact of $3288 million. This reflects higher revenue per head - $8740 for overseas born in comparison with $7990 for NZ born.

Migrants contributed a total of $8101 million through income taxes, GST and excise duties. Estimated fiscal expenditure on the migrant population (including education, health, benefits, allowances, superannuation) $4813 million, thus on income tax revenue alone from migrants $4794 million would cover approximately 90 percent of total government expenditure $4813 million on the migrant population. In other words once can conclude that migrants not only serve as a net economic benefit for the country in real terms, but actually cross-subsidize a significant proportion of government expenditure aimed at the NZ born population.

Gender equality is still far from realized in NZ boardrooms – NZ 8.65% (NZSX - 2008) of women as company directors (Norway 37% of listed companies (legislation), UK 11% of FTSE 100 (2007), US 14.8% of Fortune 500 board seats (2007)). However, the Global gender gap report of the World Economic Forum, which measures economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment, ranks NZ number 5 which also gives us reason to simile in comparison to many countries around the world.

Research consistently indicates that the organizational culture such as values, communication styles and priorities are more influential in diversity management than written policies or procedures. EEO Trust’s 2007 diversity survey covered 242, 813 employees, or 11% of the NZ workforces as at March 2006 and included 364 organizations.

Those with a strong diversity culture were more likely to employ women, older workers and people from Asian ethnic groups at all levels – they also had a lower staff turnover – 14.2 % compared with 17.3% for the bottom group. While most organizations do not measure the effectiveness of their diversity initiatives they consistently rank attracting and retaining staff, along with social responsibility as the key drivers of effective diversity management.

Those who did measure the effectiveness of their diversity practices had positive business outcomes such as improved match with customers/clients, and improved recruitment and retention. However, accountability of managers for diversity was low suggesting that effective diversity management is not yet seen as a significant critical success factor.

Yet, while reaping symbolic rewards by doing something, simply categorizing women and minorities may fall woefully short of actual diversity implementation and may be very distant from the actual deliverables for diversity management to be embedded in organizations. Thus for example one can hire by numbers, but what about internal structures to support a diverse workforce for productive work groups and career progression?

Crucial questions which an organization needs to address on the path to diversity management include the following: What are some of the critical diversity issues we face? What do we want to do about them? What is the time frame within which we want to make changes? What steps will we follow? How will we involve our people? So how does one move beyond compliance to leverage diversity as a resource? The business case for diversity is not wrong but incomplete – diversity can lead to better performance but only if it is effectively managed.

In the area of recruitment job criteria needs to be clearly specified along with care in the choice of the selection team and interview panel with due consideration paid to their demographic make-up. It is important to note that there may be a subtle bias in hiring through referrals and other informal recruitment methods. There must be clarity on the competencies for the successful candidate and the process for identification of successful competencies. Other helpful aspects in recruitment for diversity include post hiring analyses, the kinds of advertising to garner a rich pool of candidates and incentives for referrals of candidates.

Entry of a candidate into an organization can be considered as a gateway opportunity. But what happens with pathway or career progression for diverse individuals? Are steps taken to reduce misperceptions of qualifications, skills, experience of dominant and non-dominant groups? Are non-dominant employees held to different standards as compared to dominant employees? How is performance scrutinized so that career progression proceeds in an equitable fashion?

Are promotion rates for non-dominant and dominant members similar? Are women assumed to be less interested in advancement? Thus it is important to distinguish between gateways to opportunity and pathways to success– for one may enter the organization but remain permanently in the foyer.

It is widely acknowledged that while blatant racism is practically nonexistent, subtle bias, implicit bias, modern racism, aversive racism, or everyday discrimination is alive and kicking. Such ‘hidden’ bias which may be automatic, ambivalent and ambiguous creates a detection challenge.

So what tools can be offered to groups facing perpetual discrimination or asymmetrical perception? And are there partially open gateways and blocked pathways? What are the cost benefits of those cognitively efficient mental processes which we call stereotypes? How do you form accuracy oriented perceptions of others? Motivated and informed individuals make more complex assessments and more closely examine their stereotypes and the disconnect between overt and covert attitudes which mask workplace discrimination.

Training and development are significant aspects of information and behavioral change. Thus it is important to examine who goes to which type of programs and how often annually? Are older workers steered away from training? Are migrants steered away from advancement opportunities? Is diversity learning programs of high quality, embedded in the context of the organizations strategy and long term needs? Or is there a continuous stream of quick fixes?

How does one unlearn and divest oneself from stereotypes? Do programs include data about hiring, firing, promotion? Is there tolerance for joking that may be construed as racist, sexual harassment? Are managers and supervisors periodically trained and audited on their contribution to diversity particularly since there is great importance of the actions of people in power. Thus organizations can institute local egalitarian norms and accountability to third parties to endorse and monitor egalitarian outcomes.

Mentoring has been repeatedly found to be a positive influence for diversity management. Dominant group members tend to be advantaged with numerous role models and social net works, but forming appropriate mentoring relationships can strengthen diversity in the organization. Affinity groups or communities of learning may also signal support for diversity initiatives.

Yet formal policies alone are insufficient for they may be passive organizational policies and approaches without effective accountability for the vulnerable or those treated with inequality either intentionally or unintentionally.

Symbolic exercises must have substantive impact and move beyond the form to the heart of the matter or the substance, rather than compliance that achieves institutionalized status but actually is a decoupling of symbolic gestures and policies from the real world of implementation. Therefore there is the need for proactive policies and practices with managerial diversity accountability including recurring and mandatory training of managers and supervisors regarding their duties and responsibilities towards diversity issues. Such accountability must necessarily include the explicit evaluation of their contribution to the organization’s diversity goals.

The mantra for success is what gets measured gets done. Hence there is need for organizational (including HR) diversity assessment with periodic monitoring and analysis of disparities by for example ethnicity and gender in job assignments, pay, promotion, performance assessment and turnover. Finding out where disparities are greater serves to address areas which warrant closer scrutiny and plausible action.

This may include a workplace climate assessment to tap into employee perceptions of barriers to and opportunities in their careers and identification of subtle forms of bias not immediately evident from objective data. The raft of diversity initiatives and policies need to be tightly coupled to deliver on the promise of diversity management along with appropriate authority and resources to flow from and back into the organizational strategy. It is noteworthy to stress the role of the media in responsible journalism, both within the organization and externally in selling a story and educating the public in the need for sincere and concerted efforts to portray pictures of diversity that present both sides of the diversity coin to foster critical analysis and thought.

There is thus an infinite set of possibilities and a rich array of diversity practices. With its small but diverse population, diversity management is a cornerstone in the destiny of this country. Diversity is a gift - an invitation an offering for introspection and a critique of current stances with reference to difference.

For while we are diversely different, we can also be knitted together through sameness and difference in mutual respect as we seek to honour the future through a sedimented understanding of the past, layered with a celebration and naming of the present.

Diversity is the golden thread of connection for our nation and with it there looms an ocean of possibilities. So as the tui continues to sing its heart out, and the crimson bottle brush blooms, I hope you will feel encouraged to dip your toe in this ocean of infinite possibility!

This article was written especially for HRINZ publication by Dr Edwina Pio is Associate Professor and Equity coordinator at AUT University. 

Dr Edwina Pio, is visiting Professor at Boston College USA and Visiting Academic to Cambridge University UK. She researches, teaches, designs and implements strategies and training programs in the domain of diversity management.

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