Diversity: The Ethical Choice

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The United States is one of the most diverse nations on the earth, originally conceived so, and often described as a great melting pot, as “all nations are melted into a new race of man, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world” (St. John de Crèvecoeur, 1782).  Yet, despite the country’s diverse population, the workplace remains a place of inequality as women and minorities continue to earn less than their white male counterparts (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011; U.S. Census Bureau, 2009) and advance less in managerial and professional positions (Kinicki & Kreitner, 2008). The question of workplace diversity is a polarizing debate with proponents of diversity measures arguing the business benefit of diversity (Herring, 2009) and opponents arguing that diversity programs are a form of reverse discrimination (Kinicki & Kreitner, 2008). To what degree should employers, in either government or business, seek to promote diversity and encourage equality and what are the ethical considerations of such a position?  Both the government and business employers are powerful entities that can continue to enhance the dominant position of white males, or attenuate the existing dominant hierarchy by increasing diversity and working to break the glass ceiling.  Given both types of institutions are granted their power by civil society, a society that is increasingly made up of minorities (Kinicki & Kreitner, 2008), it is a societal obligation, the ethical choice, and good business, to increase diversity, address equality issues in the workplace, and turn the American melting pot myth into reality.

Employers are powerful institutions that are responsible for allocation of resources like salary, benefits, bonuses, and company stocks, based on employee role, span of control, and contribution to the organization.  While equal rights and equal pay legislation made it illegal to discriminate “based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin“ (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2011b, p. 1), the number of workplace discrimination cases continue to rise and cost employers more than $319 million in 2010, not counting litigation costs (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2011a).   Many employers invest in extensive human resource organizations that have a sophisticated grasp on the implications of equal rights legislation on organizations; and they employ professionals, like I/O psychologists and attorneys, to establish fair policies and employment practices, and decrease litigation risk to an organization (Aamodt, 2010).  In fact, employers often perform statistical analysis of employment practices to understand whether the practice could have an adverse impact against members of a protected class.  For example, testing is a practice employers use for employee selection in the hiring process; even when an employment test is determined to be reliable, valid, and cost-efficient, care is taken to assure testing predicts performance equally well for all applications (Aamodt, 2010).  Because governments and corporations have a fiduciary duty to citizens and shareholders, employers should continue to care about the issue of adverse impact, but more importantly, both government and corporations have a civil responsibility to treat members of society fairly, because societal institutions derive their legitimacy from the consent of civil society (Castello ́ & Lozano, 2011; United States, 1776).  In light of the growing minority population, pervasive inequality in the workplace, and the origin of organizational legitimacy, it is an ethical responsibility for employers to increase diversity, but how far should employers go?  More importantly, what specifically should employers do to increase diversity?

Determining the extent employment practices should be adjusted, to increase diversity is challenging without a theoretical perspective that identifies the basic constructs that maintain inequality.  In Social Dominance, Sidanius and Pratto (1999) argue that in societies with an economic surplus, dominant hierarchies are formed that maintain control over distribution of resources in a complex interplay between institutions and individuals, coordinated through legitimizing myths that justify unequal distribution of resources.  In order to attenuate the effects of dominant hierarchy-enhancing institutions on subordinate minority groups, legitimizing myths need to be understood and reframed.  An important legitimizing myth in the immigration debate is the notion of the United States as a meritocracy, also know as the American Dream, where “individuals can control their economic well-being and are responsible for their economic success or failure” (Fiske-Rusciano, 2009, p. 343), despite their differences.

Figure 1 - Semantic frames for legitimizing myths.

Figure 1 highlights the relationship between the semantic frames of the American Dream and the diversity debate, with common challenges to diversity (Morrison, 1992), structurally related to the legitimizing myth of the American Dream.  In order for employers to gain acceptance for diversity programs, diversity needs a new semantic frame inside an organization, that of diversity as fair, ethical, beneficial, and distinctly American.  The new semantic frame requires organizational support that includes practices that promote accountability, and the recruitment and development of members of protected classes into leadership positions (Kinicki & Kreitner, 2008).  Instead of simply addressing the risk of adverse impact, leaders, human resource professionals, and I/O psychologists should take a proactive role in developing practices that promote diversity.

In fact, I/O psychologists have a greater ethical responsibility and greater opportunity than most because of their status as professionals and their deep knowledge of the subject.  Lefkowitz (2003) addresses the ethical responsibility arguing that I/O psychologists expertise must benefit all of society rather than simply the clients that pay for their expertise.  The opportunity for I/O psychologists is threefold, to promote fair testing and evaluation practices, to promote development and recruitment practices that increase diversity, and to challenge discriminatory practices.  Testing and evaluation practices should do more than simply promote decision-making flexibility, rather they should be part of a comprehensive assessment practice that consider the benefits of organizational diversity, going beyond the narrow view of test scores.  I/O psychologists should play a central role in promoting diversity by building development and recruiting practices that support diversity goals.  Finally, when faced with discriminatory practices that represent an ethical dilemma, I/O psychologists are required to attempt to resolve the ethical conflict in accordance with APA guidelines (American Psychological Association, 2010); should discriminatory practices go unresolved, I/O psychologists should seek employment elsewhere, because failure to act is abrogation of responsibility to the society that grants I/O psychologists professional status.

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In conclusion, the United States is at a crossroads, where minorities will soon be in the majority and the country needs to rethink the legitimizing myths that support the continued domination of women and minorities by the white male majority.  As hierarchy-enhancing institutions, employers are in a unique position to embrace diversity programs, not only because they make good business sense, but also because embracing diversity is a sound ethical choice.  However, embracing diversity will not be easy, not only because the existing legal framework enhances the existing dominant-hierarchy, but also because organizations will need to move away from the adverse impact thought processes of the past and towards the positive impact thought processes of the future.  I/O psychologists that value a diverse perspective are poised as thought leaders in the coming future.  Most importantly, it is time to change the semantic frame outlining the diversity debate from the American Dream back to the melting pot, and in so doing focus the dialogue on the positive impact of diversity on our nation, and the great changes we can create in the world.


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