Workforce diversity: A double-edge sword?

by HCA08 Jul 2009

Workforce diversity and the gap between its theory and practice is the focus of a new research project at the University of South Australia's Centre for Human Resource Management.

Centre co-director Professor Carol Kulik said while the business case for workforce diversity predicted that diversity would improve organisational performance, organisations are rarely able to leverage diversity to deliver the benefits touted.
"Companies around the world have invested millions in workforce diversity in a bid to improve organisational performance - but they are rarely achieving the anticipated benefits of high morale and high productivity," she said.

"Left unmanaged, workforce diversity can actually do the opposite of what it promises, creating internal conflict and even reducing organisational performance."

Recognising the gap between theory and practice and considering the expanding diversity of Australian workforces, Professor Kulik has joined with Dr Isabel Metz from Melbourne Business School to identify the most effective diversity management practices.

The three-year project is funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage grant and is being supported by industry partners, the Australian Senior Human Resources Roundtable and Diversity@Work

Professor Kulik said the project would identify diversity management practices that maximised organisational effectiveness and created positive working environments in Australia.

"We'll use the concept of 'diversity practice configurations' to understand how management activities affect the organisational outcomes that result from a diverse workforce," she said.

"Diversity practice configurations are interrelated management practices that may resolve one diversity problem, such as under-representation of a demographic group, but simultaneously create new problems, for example conflict between groups. The project's aim is to identify configurations that maximise organisational effectiveness for both large and small organisations."

Professor Kulik said the project would involve several surveys of Australian employers and employees. The first Employer Survey is currently underway. The Employer Survey 2009 takes about 30 minutes to complete by a senior manager familiar with the organisation's diversity practices.

"We're looking for organisations both large and small to be involved in this research," Professor Kulik said. "Participating organisations will receive a customised feedback report after each data collection, benchmarking their diversity practices and outcomes against the rest of the sample."

Interested organisations can phone Professor Kulik at (08) 8302 7378 or email the research team at


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