Publication Date



Key Findings:

The issue of workforce diversity has been at the forefront of organizational concerns for many years. Not surprisingly, this topic has generated reams of research aimed at shedding light not only on the challenges involved, but also on ways these challenges have been and can be addressed. This paper reports on a comprehensive survey of the most recent studies in an effort to uncover what has been learned and what remains to be examined. While the paper is aimed primarily at researchers, it also offers a number of insights of relevance to managers and others who are responsible for designing and administering diversity-related initiatives in today’s organizations.

Initially, the review focused on studies examining particular types of diversity- related policies and practices (affirmative action, targeted recruiting, training, work-life integration, mentoring, etc.) to ascertain what could be said about their general effectiveness. The results were disappointing. No activity was found to be consistently effective; some studies turned up positive relationships, but more often the results were mixed or inconclusive and occasionally even negative.

If, as these findings suggest, organizations cannot rely on specific diversity- related activities to consistently produce favorable results, the logical question to ask is: “Why?” While the authors offer several reasons for this state of affairs, the overall theme that emerges relates to the absence of a holistic view of the situation. To wit:

  • Organizations tend to focus too much on popular programs and too little on specific, desired outcome(s). When initiatives are undertaken with no clear goals in mind, it should not be surprising to find that quite often very little is accomplished.

  • In too many cases diversity-related activities are studied (and implemented) in isolation and, thus, inadequate attention is given to how new procedures might interact with those already in place to affect outcomes. This is unfortunate, since HR strategy researchers have thoroughly documented the power of mutually-reinforcing “bundles” of activities in numerous studies across a wide variety of settings.

  • Many factors come into play between the formal announcement of diversity- related initiatives, bundled or otherwise, and relevant organizational outcomes. To understand why initiatives do or do not work requires that these factors be carefully considered. Are espoused initiatives implemented as planned? Do implemented initiatives result in desired employee behaviors? Do the new employee behaviors produce positive organizational outcomes? And in each case, why or why not? Clearly studies that address all of these questions are difficult to do, but they must be done if we are to have any chance of acquiring the information and insights needed to make the most of current and future diversity-related initiatives. acquiring the information and insights and future diversity-related initiatives.


Recommended Citation
Nishii, L. N. (2017, July). A multi-level process model for understanding diversity practice effectiveness (CAHRS ResearchLink No. 5). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, ILR School, Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies.