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Surface Diversity: Some Employees Subvert Diversity Programs

April 24 2012 - Organizations such as restaurant chains have put great effort into company-wide diversity programs. But do customers get the benefits of these programs? There is evidence to suggest that organizations are only achieving 'surface diversity' while key customer-facing staff such as servers are behaving in a racist way towards diners.

A revealing study by Zachary W. Brewster of Wayne State University and Sarah Nell Rusche of North Carolina State University found that over a third of restaurant servers are discriminating against African-American customers. Sarah Rusche, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, said:

"Many people believe that race is no longer a significant issue in the United States. But the fact that a third of servers admit to varying their quality of service based on customers' race, often giving African-Americans inferior service, shows that race continues to be an issue in our society."

The study, "Quantitative Evidence of the Continuing Significance of Race: Tableside Racism in Full-Service Restaurants," published in the Journal of Black Studies, describes how the researchers determined the extent to which a customer's race affects the way in which he or she is treated at restaurants. Two hundred servers were studied at 18 full-service chain restaurants in central North Carolina. Approximately 86% of were white.

38.5% of servers indicated that a customer's race affected the level of service they were given - at least some of the time. Frequently, this meant inferior service for black customers. The underlying 'explanation' appears to be that many servers perceived African-American customers as impolite and/or poor tippers.

According to the survey, more than a half (52.8%) of restaurant servers indicated that other servers discriminated against black diners - at least some of the time - by providing them with poor service.

Disturbingly, the study also showed that servers were sharing anti-black perceptions by frequently talking about the race of their customers. A mere 10.5% indicated that they never engaged in or observed racialized talk.

Sarah Rusche concluded:

"'Tableside racism' is yet another example in which African-Americans are stereotyped and subsequently treated poorly in everyday situations. Race continues to be a significant barrier to equal treatment in restaurants and other areas of social life."

Surface Diversity

Research by the non-profit RAND Corporation published in 2008 found that companies recognized for their commitment to diversity may demonstrate best practice as identified in existing literature but do not always achieve a high degree of diversity in reality. Companies often opt for "surface diversity" by focusing on short-term recruitment to ensure a certain percentage of minority employees while neglecting comprehensive diversity management programs. Limited programs may result in a racially and ethnically mixed workforce but have limited success in promoting personal development and enhanced job satisfaction for all employees.

Lead author Jeff Marquis, a political scientist at RAND said:

"Numbers alone are an inadequate measure of diversity. To reap the true benefits of diversity - like enhanced productivity, profitability and overall job satisfaction - a company has to accept and integrate an inclusive diversity program into its social and business fabric."

The report entitled Managing Diversity in Corporate America compared the actual practices of eight successfully diverse companies ranked among Fortune magazine's "50 Best Companies for Minorities" against existing literature on motivations and effective strategies for achieving diversity. Researchers then compared these companies with six others ranked among Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" recognized for exemplary human resources departments, but not for their level of diversity. Companies were selected to represent a mixture of sizes, locations and industry types.

The study confirmed that leading diversity management firms were more likely than those recognized for superior human resources practices to support strong diversity initiatives. Best diversity companies cited motives related to enhancing business performance, while best human resources companies tended to identify motives like the enhanced work environment resulting from improvements in recruitment, retention and promotion.

Jeff Marquis commented:

"Much of the diversity literature places a huge emphasis on diversity as a way of improving a company's bottom line. The relationship between performance and profitability is an important motivator for companies to adopt comprehensive diversity management programs, even if it is not the case in every situation."

The study highlighted limitations in existing diversity literature, pointing out that it largely fails to take into account the individual nature of company goals, resources, number of employees, business locations, product lines and customer bases.

Researchers also found differences in implementation of best practices relating to leadership and methods of evaluation. Best diversity companies generally fulfilled all or the majority of best practices, while human resources companies fulfilled none or just a few.

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