of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 26, No. 4

April/May 2000

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Maintaining Diversity in Information Agencies: Accountability, Professionalism, Job Performance, Policies and Standards

by Irene Owens

Recruitment, retention and placement are important to the improvement of diversity in employment in information services. But we must also apply sound on-the-job managerial and leadership practices so that we can maintain the integrity of diversity and fairness on a long-term basis with diminishing problems. This article addresses practices that may be used in management/leadership that will help in maintaining a healthy work environment so that all persons may contribute and grow and the organization can achieve its mission.

There are two major factors with which information agencies must be concerned:

      1.  Information agencies, as service organizations, must change both the nature of their workforce and the practices by which they provide services to their customers.

      2.  They must not see issues of diversity as an entity separate from good basic management principles.

Diversity and sound management are closely intertwined and should be integrated into one set of management practices. These factors will increase in importance because the workforce is expected to change at still higher rates than seen before the turn of the millennium. Two recent books are instructive to this area: Voices of Diversity: Real People Talk about Problems and Solutions in a Workplace Where Everyone Is Not Alike by Blank and Slipp, and Discrimination, Harassment, and the Failure of Diversity Training: What to Do Now by Hemphill and Haines.

The definition of diversity is often narrowly focused to include only gender and race. However, Hemphill and Haines define diversity more broadly to include "all the ways we are different." This definition includes such things as "age, education, training, socioeconomic status, culture, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, military experience and ethnicity." One reason for renewed emphasis on diversity results from predicted changes in the demographics of the workforce, including the following by Blank and Slipp:

  • Women, people of color and immigrants (many non-English speaking) represent more than 50% of the present workforce.
    • By 2000, 85% of those entering the workforce will be female, African American, Asian American, Latino or new immigrants.
  • Two million "older" workers, between ages 50 and 64, are ready, willing and able to work and are not being utilized.
    • Within 25 years, one out of every four workers will be age 55 or older.
  • Of the 43 million people with disabilities in this country, many will seek equal opportunity in employment, encouraged by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.


The signal piece of legislation barring discrimination in the workplace is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, broadened by the Civil Rights Law of 1991. This law makes job discrimination illegal. Employers cannot use race, skin color, age, gender, religious belief or national origin as their basis for hiring; nor can these criteria be used as the basis for promotions, dismissals, pay raises, benefits, assignments, leaves of absence or any other employment relationships from pre-hiring interviews to post-employment references.

Discrimination and the resulting lawsuits have proved to be very costly, economically and emotionally. The total losses due to the lawsuits are estimated in the billions of dollars, with racial discrimination being the primary factor. The emotional cost is inestimable. In order for an organization to count on the respect and top performance of all its employees to help compete in a global marketplace it must rid itself of the past stigma and reality of discrimination and harassment. All workers deserve the right to work in an environment that is free of discrimination and harassment. In their article "Sister, Sister, What Is Your Problem?" (Employee Assistance, May 1993), Marilyn Gandy and Joseph Steiner describe four basic types of discrimination:

  • Isolated discrimination: Intentionally harmful actions undertaken by a dominant group member against members of a subordinate group, without that action being socially embedded in the larger organization or community context
  • Small group discrimination: Intentionally harmful actions undertaken by a few dominant group members acting in concert against members of subordinate groups, without the sanction of the larger organization
  • Direct institutional discrimination: Organizationally prescribed actions that, by intention, have a negative impact upon members of subordinate groups which are routine actions carried out by large numbers of employees guided by organizational norms and culture; and
  • Indirect institutional discrimination: Practices that have a negative impact upon members of a subordinate group - even though the prescribed norms and regulations guiding these actions were established with no intent to harm subordinate group members.

Such infractions are not always self-evident. Discriminatory practices are often so subtle that they are difficult to recognize.

Focus on Diversity

The staggering number of lawsuits resulting from the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 forced organizations to give more thought to actions they could take to diminish the number of lawsuits and remove discrimination from the workplace. This act, signed into law by President George Bush in November of 1991, was enacted as a response to a number of Supreme Court decisions that limited enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and thereby created a heavier burden for plaintiffs. The 1991 Act reversed seven Supreme Court decisions; it creates rights to compensatory and punitive damages, including the right to a jury trial, for individuals who are victims of intentional discrimination as defined by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Several strategies were used to diminish the number of lawsuits (recruitment, internships and diversity training, for example). Some or all of these strategies are still being used, but the one that has generated the greatest amount of controversy has been diversity training. Many believe that diversity training, in some settings, may even have led to more divisiveness for several reasons. Karp and Sutton list the following in their 1993 article in Training, "Where Diversity Training Goes Wrong":

  • The programs usually reflect a specific set of values with an emphasis on changing people's attitudes, rather than dealing with their behaviors.
  • The programs are frequently guilt-driven and contain endless examples of grave injustices done by one group to another which tends to polarize the different groups into victims and oppressors, which in turn increases resentment among the groups rather than reducing it.
  • Diversity awareness is often the sole theme of the program and concrete activities focusing on real-life situations are not presented, nor is diversity awareness integrated into other company training programs or policies.

The initial purpose of diversity training was to help women and minorities, some placed in organizations as a result of affirmative action, adjust to the workplace culture - and to help the workplace culture adjust to them. Diversity training's primary intent was to raise human consciousness and to reduce and eventually eliminate discrimination and harassment practices toward women and minorities. Trainers expected to fulfill this purpose by teaching the value of human differences. It was thought that if employees understood one another's differences, then discrimination and harassment would be reduced. With newfound understanding, sympathetic employees would work together more effectively and productively. The recommendations of these programs included applying individualized communication strategies based on every employee's group identity. One result of such programs was the relegation of minority individuals to stereotypical group identities. But what persons within ethnic groups report over and over again, as documented by Blank and Slipp, is a desire to be seen first as individuals, and then (if preferred) to be seen as a part of an identity group.  Stereotyping is often an exaggerated group tendency, usually negative, which serves the function of putting a label on someone to justify the practice of certain behavior. Moreover, Hemphill and Haines report that there is little or no evidence that teaching about differences resulted in changing discriminatory and harassing behaviors.

What may have been good about diversity training was that its failure, as perceived by many, might have catapulted researchers into finding solutions that would work in removing discrimination and harassment. Hemphill and Haines describe the following factors that preclude working toward an effective solution:

    • Denial of discrimination and harassment problems. In their interviews, they report on the contrary that women and minorities described discrimination and harassment practices as being "alive and well."
    • Employee loyalties, values and belief systems relative to special interest groups cause people to alienate themselves and/or band together.
    • The mores of the workplace culture, the unwritten rules, are established by the dominant group.
    • The "Good Ole Boys" network, through which important decisions are made in such places as the golf course or club where in the past (and sometimes still) women and minorities are excluded.
    • General resistance and lack of commitment to change. Before change can take place, the organization must realize that benefits will result from changing the status quo.

Finally, there are outside pressures that add to the complexity of the workforce, and therefore preclude arriving at effective solutions, including a rapidly changing global economy, massive immigration around the world into the Americas, increased discrimination and harassment litigation, downsizing, mergers and divestiture, and a continuing explosion of technology.

Managerial Responses to the Challenges of Diversity

As stated earlier, issues of diversity should not be separated from basic management principles; they are connected and should be integrated into a symbiotic relationship. Additionally, an information agency as a service organization must consider the effects of its management decisions upon its staff and upon its customers.

If most diversity training in its current form has not worked as intended what then are some of the recommended solutions to the problems?

Hemphill and Haines recommend that we stop the denial that discrimination and harassment exist, remove the diversity label, focus on behavior, and commit to a plan of action. What is that plan of action? First, establish and enforce a zero tolerance policy for discrimination and harassment practices. Organizations cannot mandate, they state, what their employees believe and value, but they can set a policy in place which makes their employees accountable for their unacceptable workplace behaviors. Second, develop and publish company-wide workplace behavior standards. Identify and educate all employees about specific acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Establish a training program to teach skills in good relations in the workplace.

To the above list may be added the results of Blank and Slipp's research. These include the following:

  • Approach each employee as an individual.
  • Understand that cultural tendencies, such as language, mannerisms and communication patterns are not necessarily indicators of a workers' performance capabilities.
  • Recognize and confront the issue of discomfort - your own and that of others - in dealing with a diverse workforce.
  • Appreciate and utilize the different perspectives and styles of diverse workers.
  • Convey clearly your expectations for the work unit, while at the same time recognizing group differences in communication and perspective.
  • Use equal performance standards for all workers.
  • Provide feedback often and equally to all members of the workforce.
  • Openly support the competencies and contributions of workers from all groups.
  • Know the federal, state and municipal legislation that ensures equal opportunity employment.
  • Be aware of subtle and systemic institutional discrimination, intentional or unintentional, that pigeonholes and limits opportunities for members of groups other than those in the dominant culture.
  • Confront racist, sexist or other stereotypic or discriminatory behavior.
  • Become comfortable asking questions about preferred terminology or interactions.
  • Assume responsibility not only for the behavior and attitudes of your work unit but for trying to influence change in your organization.
  • Understand that it is you, the manager, who ultimately holds the key for releasing the full potential of each person in your work unit.
  • Provide opportunities for people of all backgrounds to work in teams and on group projects/task forces, etc.

A Texas Case That Worked

In the 1960s, when librarians were in scarce supply, the University of Houston was fortunate to have a corps of dedicated professionals. They had been trained by Mrs. Ruth S. Wikoff, who held a variety of titles during her long tenure and retired as associate director of libraries [and professor] in 1967 (Tucker, 1999, 126).

Although it happened more than 30 years ago, this Texas case symbolizes an approach to diversity (more specifically, at that time it was integration, a precursor to diversity) that exemplifies many of the factors that should still assist in instructing us now.

With the retirement of Ruth Wikoff as associate director, the University of Houston needed a replacement. Two factors helped to establish the context for this challenge by then-Director of Libraries Dr. E.G. Holley, now Kenan Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. First, there was a need to fill the vacancy of a highly skilled and respected member of the staff, who, among her many contributions, had gained faculty status for librarians at the university. Second, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had empowered the U.S. Attorney General to bring lawsuits on behalf of Black plaintiffs and, under Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965, prohibited spending federal funds in segregated schools and colleges. Therefore, the University of Houston, with substantial federal funds becoming available from the Great Society legislation, was well positioned to begin integrating its student body, staff and faculty. Wikoff's position was hard to fill, and  Dr. Holley reports that he had looked hard for a replacement but could not find one.

While attending a conference, he spoke with Dr. Charles Churchwell, an African American librarian, whom he realized possessed both the skills and experience to fill the job. He returned to the University of Houston and approached the personnel office and his department heads with the possibility of bringing Dr. Churchwell to the campus for consideration for the post. Dr. Holley makes his mission clear: "I did not go looking for a minority assistant director. I sought a competent assistant director and, having located him, determined that he had the qualifications by which he could succeed." Another reason Dr. Holley believed he could successfully integrate the University of Houston Library was his regard for his staff, who were dedicated professionals. They had served under Ruth Wikoff, whose dedication to the profession and to faculty status were articles of faith. Several were also "liberal democrats" in the context of those times. "Moreover," he writes, "most of us did believe in equal opportunity and welcomed the integration of the university, first with students, then with support staff and faculty, and subsequently with administration."

Dr. Churchwell, who was hired and served with exemplary success, adds

    "As we strive to create greater diversity in the workplace, there is a lesson to be learned from the University of Houston experience: Clear direction and leadership must be provided by top administrators. Choose a place where there is a core of mature staff members who are competent and secure. Choose a workplace where a high premium is placed on trust and respect. Choose a workplace where decision-making is decentralized" (Tucker, p. 139).


This experience illustrates the advice of other researchers and practitioners. We must integrate diversity into basic management, broadening it to be inclusive of all persons in the workplace. We should establish policies and standards designed to eliminate bad practices and demand and accept only fair performance appraisals. These factors will help not only to establish a more productive workforce in information agencies but will also engender better customer service.

    For Further Reading

    Tucker, John Mark, Ed. (1998). Untold Stories: Civil Rights, Libraries, and Black Librarianship. Champaign, IL: The Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

    Blank, Renee & Slipp, Sandra. (1994). Voices of Diversity: Real People Talk About Problems and Solutions in a Workplace Where Everyone Is Not Alike. New York: Amacom.

    Karp, H. B. & Sutton, Nancy. (1993). "Where Diversity Training Goes Wrong" Training, 30 (7), July 1993.

    Hemphill, Helen & Haines, Ray. (1997). Discrimination, Harassment, and the Failure of Diversity Training: What to Do Now. Westport, CT: Quorum Books.

    Gandy, Marilyn Y. & Steiner, Joseph R. (1993). "Sister, Sister, What Is Your Problem," Employee Assistance, May 1993.

This article is based on "A Managerial/Leadership Approach to Maintaining Diversity in Libraries: Accountability, Professionalism, Job Performance, Policies, and Standards." which appeared in the April issue (Volume 76 [1]) of Texas Library Journal. The Bulletin gratefully acknowledges their permission to reprint it here with appropriate revisions.

Irene Owens, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached by e-mail at iowens@gslis.utexas.edu

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@ 2000, American Society for Information Science