The Project

The Business and Moral Case

Reframing the Business Case for Diversity: A Values and Virtues Perspective
H. van Dijk, M. van Engen, & J. Paauwe
Journal of Business Ethics (2012)

In this paper, the authors discuss the underlying motivations for championing diversity. They show that there are two main streams of thought which drive diversity in the workplace; the business case and the equality case. However, they argue that these two perspectives have some fundamental differences which lead to opposing outcomes. In order to resolve this, they suggest a third viewpoint through which to understand diversity which they term ‘virtue ethics’. 

In dissecting the current perspectives on diversity, the authors first outline how the moral justification led to programmes such as equal employment opportunity (EEO) and affirmative action (AA). However, while these programmes increased workforce diversity there were also negative consequences which resulted in a backlash against such programmes. In response, EEO and AA champions reframed the diversity argument around the business case – which involved voluntary commitment to diversity based on increased business outcomes, rather than a legal requirement. This led to a number of studies examining the effects of diversity on business, and while many practitioners upheld the business case, empirical or academic research was often inconclusive, and in some cases diversity management practices were even detrimental. Nevertheless, it is the business case which is often used to promote diversity activities in organisations.

However, some people argue that the business case is not an appropriate way of managing diversity, as it does not sufficiently empower minority groups, and can even be framed against diversity, should diversity be seen to have some negative effect on organisational performance. From this and similar arguments, the authors think that basing diversity on a moral obligation to be equal, and the business case for diversity oppose one another. Indeed, they show that a great deal of diversity research is inconclusive, and if organisations base their conclusions on this information then investing in diversity management may seem less attractive. Conversely, the equality perspective also raises some concerns. The characteristics of teams and organisations inevitably have an effect on the performance of the task or quality of the outcome, whereas the equality perspective might suggest this is irrelevant. Additionally, organisations need to focus on competitive advantage and profits, and diversity may not feature in these plans. 

Therefore, these two perspectives are not sufficient to understand diversity – although the authors note that in practice these problems are less apparent as a blend of each perspective is usually employed, in response to the working environment. This is problematic in itself they argue, as it can lead to diversity scepticism as well as diversity opportunism. The first being a belief that diversity does not necessarily have a positive effect, and this leads to anti-diversity practices. Opportunism may lead to supporting diversity when it is clear it is beneficial, but avoiding it when it is not.  

In an attempt to understand and manage diversity in a more cohesive way, the authors propose ‘values and virtues’. This is described as a viewpoint that virtue is ‘excellence of any kind’, and involves excellence to be pursued by individuals in the organisation. Values on the other hand add a focus to, and coherence among these virtues. This, they say, leads to improvements in both recruitment and selection, and performance management. In recruitment processes, pre-existing stereotypes often influence decisions. By focusing virtues this can combat the negative effects of stereotypes. They give the example of nursing where virtues may be listed as compassion, courage and respectfulness. To identify these virtues in candidates it is necessary to identify indicators and criteria. They argue that it is at this stage where stereotypes can be introduced – for example that being a female is an indicator of compassion – and therefore it is also here that this can be challenged. By focusing on virtues, it is possible to distinguish between the ideal candidate and a stereotypical candidate, which benefits potential candidates in terms of reducing discrimination, and the organisation by increasing the potential for the ‘ideal candidate’. The argument for performance management is similar – that by focusing on virtues, and what specifically is being looked for in performance, ideal performance can be distinguished from stereotypical performance – typically associated with majority members. 

Overall then, this paper shows that it is important to understand the underlying motivations for diversity management, in order to effectively combat the negative outcomes of picking and choosing when to apply diversity management. As a society, in organisations, and as individuals we should be aware of how our stereotypes can lead to negative outcomes, particularly for minority groups, even with diversity management awareness – when this is driven from at times, opposing perspectives. By concentrating on values and virtues as outlined here, we can focus on the important aspects of work, challenging pre-existing stereotypes which is likely to lead to improvements for minority groups as well as for individual and organisational outcomes.

Practical Takeaways

  • The business and moral case for diversity might have to be complemented with a ‘Values and Virtues Perspective’ to be effective.
  • As a society, in organisations, and as individuals we should be aware of how our stereotypes can lead to negative outcomes.
  • By focusing on virtues, and what specifically is being looked for in candidates and performance, ideal candidates and performance might be distinguished from stereotypical candidates and performance – typically associated with majority members reducing discrimination and facilitating beneficial organisational outcomes.


van Dijk, H., van Engen, M., & Paauwe, J. (2012). Reframing the business case for diversity: A values and virtues perspective.
Journal of Business Ethics, 111, 73-84.

Further Reading

Tomlinson, F., & Schwabenland, C. (2010). Reconciling competing discourses of diversity? The UK non-profit sector between social justice and the business case.
Organization, 17, 101–121.

Noon, M. (2007). The fatal flaws of diversity and the business case for ethnic minorities.
Work, Employment & Society, 21, 773–784.

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