Handbook of Workplace Diversity

Lynn Bowes‐Sperry (Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts, USA)

Personnel Review

ISSN: 0048-3486

Article publication date: 6 June 2008



Bowes‐Sperry, L. (2008), "Handbook of Workplace Diversity", Personnel Review, Vol. 37 No. 4, pp. 462-465. https://doi.org/10.1108/00483480810877624



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

According to Billing and Sundin (p. 112), “as long as it is possible to talk about ‘them’ and ‘us’ there will be a need to discuss diversity”. While their claim suggests that the issue of diversity in the workplace will be with us for some time to come, the Handbook of Workplace Diversity makes it clear that the direction(s) that workplace diversity research will take is far from certain.

The handbook is divided into three parts:

  1. 1.

    theoretical perspectives on workplace diversity, which include psychological perspectives, human resource management perspectives, critical perspectives, and post‐structuralist perspectives;

  2. 2.

    methods for studying workplace diversity; and

  3. 3.

    dimensions of workplace diversity (e.g. sex, race, and age).

There are three unifying themes across the chapters. The first theme is that workplace diversity research includes a wide range of demographic variables (e.g., race, gender, and age) but few studies have investigated the “intersectionality” (Collins, 1993) or joint effects of these variables. This lack of intersectionality is made clear by the fact that there are eight chapters focusing on specific dimensions of workplace diversity. The second theme is that globalization of labor and product markets has increased the need for workplace diversity research. Given Billing's and Sundin's observation that, “[e]xplanations and theories with the ambition of global relevance have to be looked upon with some suspicion” (p. 101). Given this, it is not surprising that most authors in the book discuss the importance of including contextual factors (e.g. national culture) in future workplace diversity research. The third theme is that it is time for research on workplace diversity to focus more intently on theory development than on descriptive research. In other words, the numerous studies reviewed in this volume provide us with extensive knowledge on what is happening in organizations but we are often lacking consensus regarding how and why such things are happening. The one exception is the topic of heterosexism in the workplace, which Creed argues would benefit from more descriptive research given the limited number of studies in the field.

While there is consensus regarding the three themes, there is disagreement among authors in the book regarding several other aspects of workplace diversity. Perhaps most essential, however, is the rift between those who tout the “business case” for diversity and those who see it as antithetical to improving power relations between dominant and marginalized groups within organizations. Jones and Stablein describe the “business case” for diversity as “a Trojan horse: on the outside are the HRM arguments, on the inside is a passion for justice, and for the marginalized, a drive for empowerment” (p. 160). As Litvin and other authors in this volume note, the “business case” for diversity emerged when the focus of investigation shifted from issues of systemic discrimination to issues of “managing diversity” in response to backlash against affirmative action programs. Given this backlash, consultants and trainers began “selling” diversity initiatives as a means for improving the organization's financial situation rather than as “the right thing to do.” Thus, diversity initiatives that could not be proven to result in positive economic outcomes were no longer justifiable under the “business case.” The failure of diversity initiatives is even more problematic when considered from the postcolonial analysis set forth by Prasad (p. 135) in which “white privileged groups might … seek to explain failed diversity initiatives in terms of – at least to some degree – genetic, or cultural, or other supposed shortcomings of marginalized groups.”

The case one makes for diversity – the business case or a non‐business (e.g. human rights, social justice) case – is typically associated with one's preferred definition of diversity. Proponents of the non‐business‐case perspective are likely to believe that diversity should include only “[G]roups that have systematically faced discrimination and oppression at work. These historically disadvantaged groups would typically include non‐whites, women, religious and ethnic minorities, individuals with physical disabilities, older employees, gays, lesbians and bisexuals, and transgendered people ” (p. 2). Alternatively, advocates of the business case perspective are likely to believe that diversity should include a wider variety of dimensions on which people differ, for example “demographics, skills, abilities, cognitive styles, perceptual orientations, personality dimensions, values, attitudes, and beliefs that are germane to group functioning given a specific research context and theoretical orientation” (Harrison and Sin, p. 196). Proudford and Nkomo (p. 338) lament the inclusion of a wide range of variables because it will limit the ability of research “to shed light on the impact of race” in the workplace.

Given the comprehensive nature of the book, it is a “must read” for researchers and graduate students in the field of workplace diversity. In the introductory chapter, the editors present a typology of workplace diversity research that enables readers to clearly see how the varied approaches to understanding the topic are related to one another. The typology categorizes workplace diversity research along four dimensions: epistemological stance, awareness of power relations between identity groups, level of analysis of driving causal forces of diversity dynamics, and stability of social identities. As the editors note, incorporating the four genres of workplace diversity research in one volume is important to help address the fragmentation that currently characterizes the literature. Bringing together these diverse approaches to approaching diversity allows researchers to recognize shortcomings in their preferred genres while acquiring useful knowledge that will allow us to “take our research further when we hit a wall” (Prasad et al., p. 18).

The book provides excellent resources for researchers using quantitative and qualitative methods in their work. Chrobot‐Mason, Konrad, and Linnehan provide a review of quantitative measures for assessing social identification, diversity readiness and resistance, discrimination and harassment, organization practices, and organization climate. Harrison and Sin review the various ways researchers have empirically assessed diversity in teams and groups. Thurlow, Mills and Helms Mills introduce readers to feminist research, which “in contrast to mainstream research, is consciously informed by a wider project (e.g. the betterment of women, women's liberation) that precedes any research activity (p. 219). They also explain various forms of feminist qualitative research including content and discourse analyses, historiography, and ethnography.

While researchers and graduate students in the area of workplace diversity are likely to find the entire contents of the book relevant to their work, organizational practitioners, consultants, and those teaching non‐research oriented courses in management or organizational studies are more likely to find the chapter on HR strategies and diversity and the numerous chapters on dimensions of workplace diversity more useful than chapters focusing primarily on theory or methods. The chapter by Kossek, Lobel, and Brown reviews the research on the influence of HR practices (e.g. the existence of mentoring programs) on diversity outcomes (e.g. demographic characteristics associated with turnover) and, in turn, the influence of such diversity outcomes on individual, group, and organizational outcomes (e.g. job satisfaction, quality of decision‐making, and increased market share, respectively). This chapter provides an excellent resource for those working in organizations who want or need to make the “business case” for diversity.

Each chapter in Part III of the book provides a review of the existing literature on a particular facet of workplace diversity. Topics included in this section are sex and gender (including a separate chapter dedicated to men and masculinities), race and ethnicity, age and ageism, homophobia and heterosexism, mental and physical disabilities, class, and physical attractiveness and weight. For the most part, these chapters include (but are certainly not limited to) “an introduction for newcomers” (Benschop, p. 275) to the dimension of workplace diversity presented. The dimensions of diversity covered in this section include some dimensions that are protected by law and others that are not. While most of the dimensions covered are visible (e.g. sex) others are not (e.g. sexual orientation). The chapters in this section provide an excellent resource for readers who want to “bring themselves up to speed” on a particular dimension of diversity.

While I believe those conducting research in the field of workplace diversity will be motivated to read this book from cover to cover, other readers such as practitioners, organizational consultants, educators and students are more likely to be drawn to particular sections or chapters of the book.


Collins, P.H. (1993), “Towards a new vision: race, class, and gender as categories of analysis and connection”, in Collins, P.H. (Ed.), Race, Sex, and Class, I, The Center of Research on Women, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN, pp. 2546.

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