The difference between diversity and employment equity (Toughest HR question)

More commonalities than differences
By Bobby Siu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/12/2011

Question: What’s the difference between diversity management and employment equity?

Answer: The more I have observed the practices of various organizations with diversity management or employment equity, the more I am convinced they have a lot in common. Let us look at a few aspects of these two practices.

The legal side: Employment equity is a legally enforced human resource practice for the federally regulated private sector, federal public sector and federal contractors. However, there are organizations that have employment equity programs, although they are not legally obliged to do so, because they see employment equity as the right thing to do.

Diversity management, conversely, has no legislation behind it. Organizations do this because it makes business sense or fulfills corporate social responsibility requirements.

Principles: Diversity management and employment equity share common core principles:

• Treat employees with respect and dignity.

• Ensure an inclusive, fair and barrier-free workplace.

• Hire, promote and reward employees based on merit.

• Make the composition of employees reflective of the larger community.

These principles are explicitly stated in the Employment Equity Act and corporate diversity policy statements.

But there are differences. Diversity management values the embedment of diversity in a broader range of organizational functions, such as sales and marketing or customer service. It goes beyond the narrow confines of employment equity, which is limited to the domain of human resources. In addition, employment equity values human equality and social justice.

Employee coverage: Employment equity designates four groups for special attention: Aboriginal Peoples, persons with disabilities, visible minorities and women. Although this seems to be a narrow range, these groups constitute about 60 per cent of the labour force and more than 85 per cent of new recruits. And, in practice, employment equity initiatives (such as work-life balance or ergonomic furniture) benefit many employees.

Diversity management, in theory, encompasses religion, ethnicity, race, language, place of origin, age, culture, occupation, education, sexual orientation, ability, economic status, family background and working style. However, in practice, organizations with a diversity management focus seldom go beyond a small range of diverse groups that include all of the four employment equity designated groups, plus others, such as older workers, immigrants and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.

Program implementation: Both diversity management and employment equity collect and analyze employee data and keep track of how diverse and representative they are compared with the demographics of the larger community. They both use statistics as an operational tool. This focus on workforce data is closely linked with their interest in developing goals for the employment of diverse groups.

Employee engagement: Both diversity management and employment equity are people-oriented — communication, consultation, education and training are hallmarks. Both attempt to avoid a top-down management approach and are eager to engage employees. The engagement processes are often inseparable at organizations where both practices take place.

Solutions and remedies: Both diversity management and employment equity focus on organizational, not individual, solutions. Diversity management, however, tends to focus more on the attitudinal and cultural aspects of changes, and employment equity emphasizes the removal of systemic employment barriers in policies, procedures and practices.

Consequently, organizations with a diversity management focus tend to invest more money and efforts on education and training of managers and employees, whereas those with an employment equity focus concentrate more on eliminating HR policies, procedures and practices that negatively impact diverse employees.

So, the two practices have more commonalities than differences. This is ironic because diversity management, as a practice, gained momentum in the 1990s as a rejection of affirmative action programs in the United States and employment equity programs in Canada. Their differences have special appeals to different people. Both practices can integrate together quite nicely to the benefit of employees and organizations as a whole.

Bobby Siu is a consultant specializing in diversity, equity and human rights. He is the author of the Federal Equity Manual and HR Manager’s Guide to Managing Diversity and Employment Equity (recently published by Carswell, a Thomson Reuters business). He can be reached at (416) 967-5292 or

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