Diversity Management in Australia – research suggests there’s more to do

The case for diversity and inclusion in workplaces has been well established. A diverse and inclusive workplace is beneficial to multiple aspects of business performance, and is known to enhance individual employee engagement and job satisfaction.

Yet how well and how often does this translate into business practices?

This answer is less clear. In fact, there has been very little systematic work undertaken to explore this question – particularly in Australian organisations. While some organisations are paving the way in establishing leading diversity management practices (Poynton & Doraisamy 2017) the question remains – are they the exception or the norm?

Dr Paul Davis, Dr Yuliya Frolova and Dr William Callahan (KIMEP University, Almaty, Kazakhstan) conducted an exploratory study to better understand the state of Workplace Diversity Management (WDM) in an Australian context and determine the extent to which diversity management practices are embedded within Australian organisations.

In essence, the research revealed that more work is needed to uplift management understanding and organisational prioritisation of WDM initiatives.


This research aimed to understand the current state of Australian Managers’ attitudes and understanding of WDM and the practices that are being incorporated into Australian organisations.


In late 2014, a self-administered survey was mailed to 650 mid-level HR and non-HR managers from medium-large (500+ employees) private sector organisations in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. Survey data was analysed from 198 respondents, representing a 30% response rate.

The survey comprised two types of statements and respondents indicated the extent to which they agreed on a 5-point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree:

  • Group A Statements: Evaluating managers’ personal understanding of WDM (E.g. I have a very good understanding of why WDM is considered important.)
  • Group B Statements: Evaluating the value placed on WDM by the managers’ organisation (E.g. Our company has a formal, active and planned WDM strategy in place.)

Exploratory in nature, the research yielded a number of findings, together suggesting that understanding and practice of diversity management within Australian organisations is not well advanced.

The following four key findings especially enhance our knowledge in this area:

  1. Disparity in the value placed on WDM by individuals’ vs organisations: In general, respondents’ personal understanding of WDM was positive, but responses were far less positive when evaluating the degree of organisational commitment to diversity management. In fact, more than half of the responses indicated, “WDM would not rank in their organisation’s top 10 business priorities” (p89).
  2. Divergence in the views of HR vs non-HR managers: As may be expected, HR managers were considerably more aware of WDM issues and understood the benefits of managing diversity compared to non-HR managers, who had only “tentative support for, and endorsement of WDM” (p.92).
  3. Limited understanding of WDM by HR managers: Unexpectedly, a significant proportion of HR managers were neither informed nor supportive of the ideals behind workforce diversity. For example, only 62% agreed or strongly agreed that they had a good understanding of the goals of WDM. Moreover, only 50% of HR managers said their organisation benefited from diversity.
  4. Management skepticism of the value and benefits of WDM: WDM was not found to be a business priority among the surveyed organisations. Furthermore, a significant proportion of senior managers reported doing very little to actively promote WDM initiatives in the workplace.

Although there has been an increased focus on workplace diversity management in recent years, this research suggests that it is far from “universally understood and appreciated” in contemporary Australian organisations. Furthermore, the researchers concluded that there is a “relative invisibility of WDM” practices in organisations compared to other HR-led programs, such as talent or performance management.

As such, there is a need to increase understanding and practice of WDM within an Australian context. These research findings suggest that to achieve this, organisational leaders should consider the following:

  1. Hold up the mirror on person-organisation fit: Organisations should determine if there is misalignment between the value they place on diversity and inclusion, comparative to that of their employees. Culture fit is the glue holding an organisation together and failure to espouse values that are important to employees can have negative implications for talent attraction and retention (Bouton 2015).
  2. Focus on educating non-HR managers: Efforts to increase organisational understanding and prioritisation of diversity management should focus on middle managers, especially those in non-HR roles. As noted by Bourke and Dillon (2018), “the middle manager cohort is vital to the success of an organisation’s diversity and inclusion strategy” and manager commitment to diversity initiatives is “paramount to their success” (McCuiston et al. 2004).
  3. Don’t assume HR is driving the agenda: This research suggests that despite being the traditional custodians of D&I related issues, HR Managers may not all strongly understand or place emphasis on workplace diversity initiatives. It’s OK to challenge assumptions and work with HR leaders to ensure they are leading the organisation’s D&I agenda.
  4. It starts with leadership: According to Edgar Schein (1992) “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is create and manage culture”. Leader behaviour is critical to setting the tone for what’s valued in an organisation. In particular, organisations should focus on developing inclusive leader capabilities, as their open-mindedness and strong commitment to fairness, is fundamental to creating inclusive organisational cultures and practices.



Bourke, J., & Dillon, B. (2018). The diversity and inclusion revolution: Eight powerful truths. Deloitte review, 22, 81-95.

Bouton, K. (2015). Recruiting for Cultural Fit, Harvard Business Review, 17 July 2015.

McCuiston et al. (2004). Leading the diverse workforce. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 25, 105-124

Shein, E.H. (1992). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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