Prohibiting Exclusion in the Workplace:
So when and how did this focus on diversity and inclusion as business issues get started in the USA? Most people point to the mid-1960’s when the Civil Rights Movement led to the passage of the anti-discrimination laws which ultimately changed American business practices. Even so, I would suggest going back to a June 26, 1941 headline in the New York Times:
“President Offers an Even Break for Minorities in Defense Jobs:
He Issues an Order that Defense Contract Holders Not Allow Discrimination…”
The story described a bold step taken by President Franklin Roosevelt in issuing a highly controversial Executive Order prohibiting discrimination based on race, national origin, creed (religion) and color on Federal contracts involving national defense efforts. It was a historic action that set the stage for expanded orders over the next 24 years to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The “Act” which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion and national origin in all areas of the American mainstream became the foundation for additional Federal laws and Executive edicts prohibiting exclusion based upon age, disability, and gender identity.
Within a year, the President issued an Executive Order strengthening requirements for Federal agencies and Federal contractors to seek qualified applicants from groups previously excluded from employment opportunities. His call for stronger “affirmative action” required Federal contractors to be held accountable for achieving employment goals for members of minority groups and women within specified time-frames as a condition of their contracts. For more than two decades this program would represent a major conflict between those who felt that it was the only way to overcome the effects of past discrimination and those who saw it as a new form of discrimination. Although the issue is still alive and active it has been overshadowed by more recent changes in workforce and customer demographics.
Organizations experienced higher levels of diversification into the 1980s and 90s as a result of demographic shifts in the population due to changing birth rates, new immigration patterns, the impact of global business, etc. This led many researchers to predict that the entry level workforce of the next century would be largely made up of people from minority groups, women and non-European immigrants.
Based upon these changes, the challenge of the new millennium centered on developing the competencies needed to relate to this diverse workforce and customer base made up of people from cultures that were often different from those which had defined the success of the organization in the past. The development of the new initiatives, programs and skills to meet this challenge came into being under the heading, “Managing Diversity.”
As management strategies grounded in diversity became more successful, organizations learned that having diversity without inclusion could cause more problems than the absence of diversity. In response to this reality, organizations began to increasingly focus on employee engagement, employee value propositions and other efforts designed to make employees feel included, respected and valued. There has also been a renewed focus on the quality of relationships among all employees within the organization.
By taking steps to create higher levels of trust, respect and collaboration, many organizations have been able to increase overall effectiveness and resolve difficult situations while minimizing reality or appearance of discrimination, bias and other unacceptable conditions in the workplace.
Have we reached a point where issues of difference based on race, gender and similar considerations are no longer significant challenges for most organizations? Many would say, “Not yet. We have much more to do.”
At the same time, I think that it is fair to say that we have come a long way on the journey from exclusion to inclusion.